This long and thoughtful essay by Robert W. Nicholson is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in Israel and modern Christianity, particularly the relationship between American Jews and evangelical Christians.
At a time when the state of Israel lies under existential threat from jihadist Islam, and under ideological and diplomatic assault in foreign ministries, international organizations, churches, universities, editorial offices, and other circles of advanced Western opinion—and when even some Jews in the Diaspora seem to be growing disenchanted with the Zionist cause—millions of evangelical Christians unabashedly continue their outspoken, wholehearted, stalwart defense of both the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
By all rights, this rather stunning fact—the fact of a vibrant Christian Zionism—should encourage a welcoming response from beleaguered Jewish supporters of Israel. Instead, it has caused palpable discomfort, especially among Jewish liberals. Wary of ulterior religious motives, and viewing evangelicals as overly conservative in their general outlook on the world, such Jews either accept the proffered support with a notable lack of enthusiasm or actively caution their fellow Jews against accepting it at all. To many, the prospect of an alignment with evangelicals, even one based on purely tactical considerations, seems positively distasteful. Very few have attempted to penetrate the evangelical world or to understand it in any substantive way.
This is a pity, for many reasons. It is also a serious strategic error. For the reality is that today’s Christian Zionism cannot be taken for granted. For one thing, not all evangelicals do support Israel. For another, more alarming thing, a growing minority inside the evangelical world views the Jewish state as at best tolerable and at worst positively immoral, a country that, instead of being supported on biblical grounds, should be opposed on those same grounds.
Nicholson is alarmed by continued Jewish indifference or hostility to evangelical Christian support in the face of a growing pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel/anti-Jewish movement in the evangelical world that he compares to Liberation Theology in Catholicism. He makes a strong case and American Jews would be wise to heed it. Most of them probably will not do so, however. If they were smarter about their interests they would long since have embraced evangelical Christians as political allies.
24 thoughts on ““Evangelicals and Israel””
I grew up in a Baptist home, and the Jews were always respected, supported and borderline adored by that church.
Evangelical support for Israel is only partly based on theological factors. Much of it is due to the fact that evangelicals tend to be from parts of society that are outside the force field centered on academia, PBS, and the NYT…hence, their normal human/American emotions toward a decent society beleaguered by barbarians has not been re-programmed or short-circuited.
David, I hope that you are right and that Nicholson’s concerns prove to be excessive.
Great comment David Foster.
I grew up in Chicago, on the South Side in an area called South Shore. My father was a caricature bigot, sort of like Dirty Harry. Most of us in high school had Jewish girlfriends. One theory was that their fathers were a potential source of baseball tickets. We all went through the phase when they had their nose jobs and had black eyes for a couple of weeks. I had one girlfriend, whose father was a state Senator (can’t remember his name), who told her to stop seeing me, a goy. No big deal. I was a member of the Young Men’s Jewish Council because they had a basketball court and the YMCA didn’t.
I also had a Polish girlfriend from farther south whose parents didn’t like me because I wasn’t Polish.
I don’t know where the current prejudice came from but it wasn’t the ethnic Irish Catholic kids I knew. South Shore had a big Jewish population in the 40s and 50s when I was growing up with 3 or 4 synagogues in walking distance from my parents’ house.
Years after I left, Michelle Obama grew up a block from my house. It was all black by then, as it is now. I stopped to take a photo one day about six years ago and the guy who now owns my parents’ house came out to talk. He showed me through the house and asked if I would send him photos of the house then. I really felt sorry for him. He wants what we had and can’t figure out how to get there.
I grew up in a Quaker home where the poor, poor Palestinians were always held in high esteem…and uh, nobody starved in Russia or Cuba, by the way. Now, I’m out of the force field, and one of them there e-vangelical Christians.
As the author alludes to it, this evangelical support is not guaranteed ad infinitum. My own denominational governing body, Presbyterian Church USA, has come very close to voting for divestment of its financial assets in Israel. I need to stress this is the national governing body, not the common folk who sit with us in our pews in the San Fernando Valley.
Jason, the national Presbyterian church is hardly evangelical. It is closer to the Palestinians in philosophy than all but the Liberation Theology Catholics in the Sandanista government in Nicaragua.
Jason – MikeK beat me to that observation. The Episcopals are equally left. One reason I have ceased being a regular “churchgoer”.
Another board I like to frequent, http://www.seraphicpress.com/, is run by Hollywood screenwriter (with many credits) and devout Jew Robert Avrech. And he has said that many times he has felt more comfortable being around Christian Evangical friends than many Jews.
I grew up Lutheran – LCA/ELCA first (that’s the liberal wing, or liberal as it was in the 50s and 60s), and then Missouri Synod (conservative) when we were first in Texas. I never saw any particular animus towards Israel in church in either Synod. Of course, the two parishes where my family attended during the years when I began paying attention had many congregants who were émigrés from Nazi Germany and remembered it all very clearly. I don’t know what the policy towards Israel is at the official level these days – but I never noted any animus towards Israel or favoritism towards the Paleostinians. But this may have changed in the last ten years or so.
As for Cal State Northridge – never noted any favoritism or animus there, either. Of course, it was a commuter school, with a lot of students of all ages and backgrounds mainly getting their educational fix and briskly moving on. I did go to see Moshe Dayan give a talk once, though. Sometime in 1975 or 1976 – there were a small group of protestors outside the venue, and security giving a cursory search to my handbag. There was no disruption to the talk inside. I think he was sponsored by Hillel – although I can’t be certain of my memory at this point. It was an interesting talk, although I was mostly distracted by how he seemed to speak English – British English – as if he had once been fluent in it, but had become rusty over time.
There is a wealthy Episcopal church in Newport Beach that is seeing a huge battle between the parish and the national church. The parishioners, who built the church, are leaving the national church and want to keep their present facility. The national church is trying to claim ownership although they contributed not a penny to its construction and maintenance. They lost their court fight with the LA Diocese. My kids attended a magnificent private school affiliated with the Episcopal church but all built by the parents over the years. I hope they have some ownership interest.
Another Episcopal school my daughter attended in later years had a parent revolt when the school board hired an “outcomes based learning” headmaster. The board the parents to leave if they didn’t like it and they did. A year later they were advertising in the Pennysaver for applicants. They had not invested millions in that school, however.
UC, Irvine has seen a number of ugly demonstrations by Muslim “students” and has failed, like Brown U, to take any useful action. Some got arrested but the U has done little.
The Huffington Post, of course, disapproves of the local legal action.
“Moutaz Herzallah, whose son is one of the defendants, said he has never heard of American students being tried over protests.
“I decided to immigrate to this country with my family so we could have peace, freedom of speech, dignity and honor,” said Herzallah, a Palestinian who came here from Bahrain several decades ago. “Apparently, the district attorney of Orange County threw the American Constitution in the trash.”
How would he know ?
Here comes the non-evangelical Protestant church.
I agree that evangelical support for Israel cannot be taken for granted, but the truth is most American Jews don’t care very much about Israel anymore, many are downright hostile and pro-Palestinian, and most affiliated Jews and Jewish institutions, rabbis and other community “leaders” (other than the Orthodox) support Israel only so long as it avoids conflict with the Obama administration. The declining interest and support of American Jews is one of the reasons Netanyahu has gone along with the current farcical “talks” with the PA, and agreed to free scores of terrorist murderers as the PA’s price just to sit at the same table with Israelis.
Djf, I agree, to my great regret, that American Jews are a problem, though I don’t think many are hostile to Israel. Rather, among the non-orthodox it’s mostly indifference and a preference for soft-left political priorities over Jewish communal interests. But Jews are a small part of the US population. American support for Israel derives mainly from the support of American Christians and disproportionately from the support of evangelicals, so any erosion in evangelical support is much more significant politically than a similar decline in Jewish support.
I respectfully disagree, Jonathan. Jewish support for Israel (such as remains) is the only reason the current administration is not being more hostile to Israel (of course it’s plenty hostile as it is, but it could be even worse). Jews, of course, are disproportionately influential in the Democratic Party. Democrats do not expect votes or campaign $ from pro-Israel evangelicals for a host of reasons. I also respectfully disagree with your characterization of what’s going with US Jews as indifference = there’s plenty of that, of course, but there is also outright hostility (at least to the current government) in the institutional Jewish world, secular and religious. Check out the views of the recently installed head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish religious denomination in terms of temple membership (I think his name is Jacobs). His views are pretty much identical with J Street, which, in my view, is hostile to Israel (except the Israeli far left). There are people (Jewish and gentile) who are even worse, of course, but Israel is in deep, deep trouble with the mainstream, nonorthodox US Jewish community (meaning people who actively affiliate).
The decline of evangelical support will ultimately translate, years down the road, into Republican indifference or hostility to Israel, so I agree that it is a real problem – assuming the Republicans are ever in a position to control more than just the House again. Maybe they’ll be bailed out by the outrage over Obamacare, but I’m skeptical.
To the foregoing, I would add that the Republican Party is kept somewhat tethered to pro-Israel positions, not only by evangelicals, but by significant amount of money coming in from Jewish pro-Israel contributors, whose views can broadly be described as neoconservative (Sheldon Adelson comes to mind). Such people are not a significant voting constituency for Republicans, needless to say, but their money exerts quite a bit of influence. And Republican politicians’ ideas on foreign policy are still largely shaped by pro-Israel think tanks and writers. If the party moves in a libertarian or populist direction, of course, this could change.
I respectfully disagree, Jonathan. Jewish support for Israel (such as remains) is the only reason the current administration is not being more hostile to Israel (of course it’s plenty hostile as it is, but it could be even worse). Jews, of course, are disproportionately influential in the Democratic Party. Democrats do not expect votes or campaign $ from pro-Israel evangelicals for a host of reasons.
If pro-Israel Jews have so much influence with the Obama administration why has he been able so consistently to roll over their interests? It seems to me that this is more a case of Jewish Democrats going out of their way to avoid antagonizing Obama.
Perhaps Jews would have more influence if they began directing more of their political contributions to Republicans. Jews, like blacks, have been stupid in aligning themselves too closely with one party that has then taken their support for granted.
I also respectfully disagree with your characterization of what’s going with US Jews as indifference = there’s plenty of that, of course, but there is also outright hostility (at least to the current government) in the institutional Jewish world, secular and religious. Check out the views of the recently installed head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish religious denomination in terms of temple membership (I think his name is Jacobs). His views are pretty much identical with J Street, which, in my view, is hostile to Israel (except the Israeli far left).
Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t see much hostility to Israel from Jews, other than from a noisy leftist minority typified by the J Street people. There have always been such Jews. In the past they may have supported Israel when Israel was seen as a leftist country aligned with other leftist countries. Now that Israel is no longer leftist these Jewish leftists are no longer sympathetic.
It’s mainly non-Jewish voters and legislators who drive US support for Israel. I don’t think this will change unless a majority of Americans drops its belief in American exceptionalism and hence in Israel’s own, somewhat different, exceptionalism, and loses sympathy for Israel, as David put it, as a decent society beleaguered by barbarians.
Jonathan, the “pro-Israel Jews” are not terribly pro-Israel, in terms of what that meant 20 or even 10 years ago. For the 70% who supported Obama in the last election, their views on Israel issues overwhelmingly correspond either to the Israeli Labor Party or Meretz, which is even further left. I don’t know what kind of Jews you’re talking to, or what kind of Jewish publications you might read (Commentary is an outlier), but the nonorthodox Jews I know (and even some Orthodox) have little or no qualms about supporting Obama. Most are not noisily obnoxious like the J Street crowd, but most US Jewish “leaders” quietly try to influence the Israeli government to do what Obama wants (in this, they have many allies in the Israeli establishment, who certainly don’t think of themselves as anti-Israel). That Obama has not totally abandoned Israel (and he could be even worse than he has been) is an accommodation of this part of his constituency – which really is disproportionately influential in the Democratic Party. There’s nobody else in the Democratic Party who cares about Israel at all, except if they hate it.
I put very little stock in polls showing that most Americans say they “support” Israel (whatever that means) after being asked a vague question on the phone and thinking about it for three seconds. Personally, as a supporter of Israel, I object to tying support for it to the concept of “American exceptionalism”; Israel’s right to exist has nothing to do with it being some sort of beacon of democracy (which, in fact, it ain’t, even if it qualifies as a generally civilized society, unlike its neighbors).
November 5th, 2013 at 3:27 pm
That tethering is subject to another risk. It is the largely the conservative base and the TEA Party that keep that tether strong. The ongoing attempt by the Institutional Republicans to rid themselves of both groups may well succeed. At that point, they will probably try to move Left to make up for the loss. Enter both Soros and various Saudi funding sources, which the Institutionals will be more than happy to accept regardless of any strings.
It will bring a certain clarity to the Israeli situation. Not having to try to be nice to avoid offending a US that is now an open enemy removes a lot of ambiguity. It does not make the situation better, but it makes it clearer.
Yes, most American Jews support Obama, and Obama is hostile to Israel. I interpret this situation as implying that American Jews are stupid about politics, not that they are hostile to Israel. Obama is unpopular in Israel where Jews pay high costs for the policies he is trying to push on them. And from what I have heard Jews living in Europe and other parts of the world where anti-Jewish sentiment is frequent tend to be more conservative politically than American Jews are. I conclude that American Jews have things pretty good and therefore can get away, for the moment, indulging foolish politics. Let us hope that life remains good for them.
The point about American exceptionalism is that the USA has a unique and durable culture that strongly influences its politics — as two of the other contributors to this blog have argued in their book. I conjecture that this culture is closely tied to many non-Jewish Americans’ support for Israel. If I am right, such support is not likely to fade any time soon.
Fascinating comments about growing up in Chicago. Re your Polish g/f: my mother-in-law has some fabulous neighbors who help look after her. They are, I’m guessing, about your same age. The woman is Croatian, and was the first of her generation here in America to marry outside her ethnic group. Her parents ultimately decided it was OK because the young man was Irish, i.e. Catholic. :-)
Based upon where I grew up in West Texas in the 1960’s and being raised in a hybrid Southern Baptist/German Catholic culture, most folks there could have cared less about Israel and the Middle East until the 1967 war. After that, the admiration for the Israelis grew and has kept on growing ever since. Their willingness to make the hard decisions and stick to their guns is what did that. Israel’s willingness to fight resonates well with the Jacksonian culture there.
Good point, Joe Wooten.
A lot of evangelicals came into the pro-Israel fold because of end-times theology, but stayed because of their sense of fair play. Some of that was admiration for Israel and the IDF. But I think the rhetoric and behavior of their enemies also played a part. The same sort of arguments that were being used by the Palestinians and many of the Arab critics had been used by leftist apologists in other parts of the world. My own reaction was “If the Palestinians had a better argument they would use it. Therefore, this is the best they’ve got: bent history and denial of responsibility.”
I note that many evangelical groups used to be anti-Semitic (Jimmy Carter’s upbringing, for example), and even now much of the support is for Israel more than for Jews in general, especially as American Jews are seen as the main funding source of the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Another reason why it could all turn quickly.
As a generally pro-Israel evangelical myself, I’d say that’s a pretty good one-line summary, AVI.
In so far as those interested in end-times are more likely to be knowledgeable about the region’s history, they are much less likely to fall for the ahistorical BS that anti-Zionists so often peddle. In addition, what the Israelis have built economically fits well with the support for free enterprise and hard work that one generally (but not universally) sees in evangelical circles.
On the flip side, detractors of Israel are more likely to be end-times skeptics and/or historically ignorant and/or morally confused and/or collectivist. Those last three qualities in particular suggest that if support for Israel declines in the evangelical community, it will be part of a broader decline in the relevance, knowledge, and decency of evangelicals on a whole range of issues. (Not that we are the pure embodiment of the those characteristics now, of course, but we could get a lot worse.)
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