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Allied Forces

As evangelical support for Israel—once rock solid—erodes, one Christian group is promoting a different kind of allyship by showing up when antisemitic attacks occur

by
Maggie Phillips
February 08, 2023
The Philos Project
Members of the Philos Action League at a vandalized Jewish cemetery in Waukegan, Illinois, November 2022. PAL volunteers bring white roses as a symbol of allyship.The Philos Project
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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The Philos Project
Members of the Philos Action League at a vandalized Jewish cemetery in Waukegan, Illinois, November 2022. PAL volunteers bring white roses as a symbol of allyship.The Philos Project

As antisemitism rises in the U.S., a pro-Israel Christian group is hoping to demonstrate concrete allyship to Jewish communities.

The Philos Project was founded in 2014 to increase understanding and appreciation for both Judaism and Israel. In 2021, it launched the Philos Action League (PAL), a network of on-call volunteers around the country ready to show up whenever and wherever antisemitic attacks occur. Their volunteers often arrive with white roses in hand to show both their Jewish neighbors and the world at large that they stand with the Jewish community. If there is vandalism at a synagogue or cemetery, they place a bouquet of white roses on the site. If there is an anti-Israel demonstration, they stand with the counterprotesters. If there is violence, they show up at the hospital (or memorial site) with a bouquet.

In Christian terms, it’s often called the “ministry of presence.” It is the belief that in a difficult situation, apart from the material assistance one may offer, there is value in being intentionally, mindfully present. Christian writers will frequently place this practice in the context of Job’s friends, who, according to the Bible, sat with him in silence for seven days when they observed the severity of his grief after the death of his children and the destruction of his livelihood.

PAL is led by a lean team consisting of four staffers. A strategy staffer tracks and reports antisemitic incidents and reports them up the chain to Philos advocacy associate Hannah Garces, who is in charge of mobilizing volunteers. Garces then consults PAL’s roster of volunteers, determining based on their location who best to contact via text, email, and a call, with instructions about where they should go to offer support.

Garces said PAL provides situational awareness training for its volunteers, preparing them to handle themselves in protest and counterprotest contexts. She also said that many Philos volunteers come from Pathfinders, Philos’ foundational leadership training, which includes historical context on Christian-Jewish relations.

Since its inception in 2021, Garces said the PAL network has a call list of 2,100 people in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and have gone on 128 “responses” after antisemitic incidents. PAL Director and Philos Deputy Director Luke Moon has big ideas for the project, saying he wants action leaguers on site in response to antisemitism “every time, every time.” The idea is to highlight for others how frequently such incidents occur.

Moon believes it is a practical solution for well-intentioned Christians who are unsure how to be allies. “It allowed Christians to respond in a very intentional way,” Moon said of PAL. “People want to do something, but they don’t know what to do. I think that’s most of us most of the time.”

Philos CEO and founder Robert Nicholson said over the phone that his aim with Philos is to help Christians understand that antisemitism “didn’t stop with Hitler.” He began the organization to address what he saw as the problem of American Christians’ poor understanding of (and engagement with) Judaism and Israel. Nicholson, who described himself as an evangelical Christian in a 2018 lecture at the Jewish Leadership Conference, has written and spoken widely about the need for greater understanding and cooperation between Jews and Christians—particularly evangelicals, who have been staunch supporters of Israel in recent decades, and have long been considered a strong influence in shaping American Middle East policy.

As a pro-Israel organization, Philos sponsors educational modules oriented toward improving young American Christians’ understanding of Israel and its context in the Middle East. (Editor’s note: Philos shares a common funder with Tablet.) While its work cuts across Christian denominations, it faces a significant challenge as support for Israel declines among younger evangelicals, threatening to erode a powerful pro-Israel bloc in American Christianity.

In addition to PAL, Philos has a spinoff organization, Passages. Now its own independent 501(c)(3), Passages began under Philos to sponsor Israel trips for young Christians, to give them firsthand experience with the region’s cultural, political, security, and religious realities. Participants meet not only Israeli Jews, but Christians and Muslims from Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“Our goal is less to bring Judaism closer to Christians than to show Christians how deeply connected they are to the Jewish people—morally, historically, and culturally,” Nicholson said via email. “Jews and Christians have some significant theological differences, but a shared reverence unites them for scripture and its values. The goal isn’t to make Christians Jews but to reorient Christians on the Hebraic foundations of their faith and teach them the importance of Israel to the Jewish people.”

People want to do something, but they don’t know what to do.

Denominational diversity makes landscaping U.S. Christianity’s attitudes toward Israel a challenge. Recent Gallup polls are illustrative: Catholic sympathy for Israel was at 60% according to 2019 numbers, mapping neatly with a 2022 poll in which 55% of Americans said that they sympathized more with Israelis than Palestinians. Meanwhile, 70% of Protestant respondents in the same 2019 survey described themselves as sympathetic to Israel. That number rose to nearly 90% when white, “highly religious” Protestants were broken out. Media coverage of prominent pro-Israel evangelicals like Mike Evans and Christians United for Israel President John Hagee can give the impression that supporting Israel is an article of faith among all white, highly religious Protestants, who tend to be categorized by both themselves and others as evangelical Christians. But this impression can obscure the reality that there have been evangelical critiques of Zionism within their community going back decades, and that between 2018 and 2021, young evangelical support for Israel more than halved.

So what is an evangelical? “More of an exit poll category,” New York Times opinion columnist David French said in a 2021 Tablet interview. In his book Nonverts: The Making of Ex Christian America, sociologist Stephen Bullivant echoes this idea, saying evangelicalism is less a set of doctrines than “a distinctive subcultural world: a “sacred umbrella,” which provides “a shared identity, language, and worldview—along with prescribed norms and practices.” This in turn creates a parallel, pervasive evangelical internal culture.

The particular beliefs that would go on to inform much of American evangelicals’ interest in Israel have their roots in 19th-century Britain. There, Anglican priests Louis Way and John Nelson Darby developed a theological schema of the end of the world, based on their reading of Christian scriptures. Their combined view was of a restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Palestine, setting “the clock of Biblical prophecy […] ticking again.” The Jews, now back home in the Holy Land, were primed to convert to Christianity during the tribulations that would precede the surely imminent Second Coming of Christ (or shortly thereafter). Darby augmented this narrative with a belief in a “rapture,” or the sudden disappearance of believing Christians immediately prior to Christ’s return, and the necessity of a Jewish state for God to bring his plan for humanity to completion, which meant replacing the current world once and for all with a new heaven and a new earth. These ideas were fairly radical in Christian circles, for the most part falling outside Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or traditional Protestant traditions. Darby would spread his views with some success before his death in 1882, however, which would become known as “premillennarian dispensationalism.” Darby’s system, which holds that world history is divided into several progressive stages (dispensations), as the world falls into graver and graver tumult immediately prior to Christ’s Second Coming, survives with various shades of difference among fundamentalist and conservative evangelicals.

This worldview took hold among conservative American evangelicals in the early 20th century, as it was adopted by prominent lay preachers and evangelists. By 1948, a significant segment of evangelicals saw the establishment of a Jewish state as a clear sign. Premillennarian dispensationalism, something that until then had not been wholly mainstream in their movement, was on the right track. The capture of the West Bank in 1967 only served as further confirmation for many. By the 1970s, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority had become an influential bloc in American politics, marrying Darby-esque support for Israel to cultural conservativism. It was a happy convergence of interests for some policymakers and shapers on the American right, who viewed traditional Christian morality, and a strong pro-Israel stance, as crucial to keeping the Soviets away at home and abroad.

A useful starting point for understanding evangelicalism’s ongoing political influence is 1976, which Newsweek declared the “year of the evangelical.” Born-again Christian Jimmy Carter was running for president, Billy Graham was a household name, megachurches’ cultural presence was growing, and it was the year Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker would launch their long-running talk show, The PTL Club.

PAL member Josiah in Crown Heights brings flowers to the Crown Heights Jewish Council to express solidarity following an attack on a Hasidic man in January 2023
PAL member Josiah in Crown Heights brings flowers to the Crown Heights Jewish Council to express solidarity following an attack on a Hasidic man in January 2023The Philos Project

Conservative politicians and evangelicals continued to coalesce around Israel, as Ronald Reagan siphoned off evangelical votes from Carter to win the presidency in 1980. By the second George W. Bush administration, Newsweek was looking back at its “year of the evangelical,” and addressing concerns over the threat of an emerging American theocracy. Yet even in 2006, when the magazine published its retrospective nearly three decades to the week after it published the original issue, editor Jon Meacham was sounding a note of temperance: “the traditional religious right is being threatened by emerging tensions between those who emphasize sexual morality and those who are looking more to poverty and global health.”

Of course, Bush-era fears of the transformation of the United States government into a full-blown evangelical theocracy never fully materialized. But similar concerns resurfaced in 2016 with Donald Trump’s presidential run and election, fueled in part by his support among white, conservative evangelicals. What these projections overlooked, however, was that the cleavage Meacham observed 10 years earlier was continuing apace. The split was between not only conservative and liberal evangelicals, but between young and old, and between the faithful and a growing chorus of disaffiliated “exvangelicals.”

The splintering between younger and older evangelicals on Israel is sometimes attributed to the former’s unfamiliarity with the events of 1948 and 1967. But the widening of the rift has accelerated. Bullivant notes in his book that Ted Cruz, not Donald Trump, was evangelicals’ first choice in the 2016 presidential primaries. He writes that Trump secured their support in the general election due to a sense of “cultural weakness and quasi-desperation” on their part. However, if it was a marriage of convenience, it seemed to develop into a true love affair on the part of at least some, to the point that, per Bullivant, a Pew study indicated “that between 2016 and 2020, among white nonevangelicals expressing warm feelings toward Trump, around one in six began identifying as ‘born again’ or ‘evangelical.’”

But if evangelicals won converts during the Trump administration (at least nominally, since “a substantial minority” in a recent Pew study rejected the divinity of Christ, a tenet of Christianity professed by the very earliest Christians and by the Christian scriptures), they are losing cradle members. “The 2016 election would become the most shattering experience for evangelicals since the Scopes Trial,” wrote historian and evangelical Thomas Kidd in his book Who Is an Evangelical? And the Scopes trial looms large: In a 2013 Jewish Political Studies Review article about evangelical anti-Zionism, author Dexter Van Zile cites the 1925 Scopes trial as a pivotal moment in the shaping of American evangelical identity. He wrote that the trial, which pitted evolution against creationism, “prompted fundamentalism to detach from mainstream society” (Bullivant says something similar about the rise of the politically influential religious right some 50 years later, as society’s attitudes grew more liberal: “It’s not so much that these religious groups suddenly embraced a conservative agenda as they were the only ones left holding it.”)

This sense of being distinct, a people set apart, had helped evangelicals remain a dynamic internal culture, Van Zile writes. But in his article, focused on evangelical anti-Zionism, he attributes young people leaving evangelicalism to “a divergence between the theological and political beliefs” they have internalized from broader American culture, “and the teachings of the church into which they are born.” In Nonverts, Bullivant theorizes that there was a corollary between the moral controversies of the Trump administration and the rise of the “exvangelical” movement of (mostly young) evangelicals. He quotes people disaffected by what they saw as the hypocrisy of their parents’ support for the president, whose personal conduct deviated from the culture and beliefs with which they were raised.

Bullivant adds other contributing factors for the splintering: Younger generations lack the “suspicion and prejudice toward atheists and the nonreligious” that marked the Cold War era, and mostly grew up amid post-9/11 concerns about the threats from religious extremism. Those who stayed within the evangelical fold, Van Zile writes, became eager to distinguish themselves from the negative stereotypes. Hence, he writes, in 2010, pro-Palestinian “Christ at the Checkpoint” conferences began in Bethlehem, aimed at evangelical Christians. Van Zile quotes evangelical leader Tony Campolo at the 2012 Christ at the Checkpoint conference, who, like the young exvangelicals Bullivant describes, sought in his remarks to distance himself from the stereotypical evangelical, and the popular conception that Christians “are anti-women, anti-gay, anti-environmental, pro-war, anti-Arab.”

Both in the language on Philos’ website, and in Nicholson’s own rhetoric, support for Israel and supporting Jews are interchangeable concepts. When speaking at the 2018 Jewish Leadership Conference about the need for what he calls “a strategic alliance” between evangelicals and Jews “for the purpose of strengthening our two communities,” Nicholson didn’t distinguish between the two concepts of Zionism and allyship.

In the estimation of Luke Moon—who has been with Philos since the beginning and leads the PAL initiative—prior to 1948, evangelicals were not especially Zionist for much of the movement’s early history.

Moon gave me a quick primer on 20th-century American Protestantism, beginning with the 1970s charismatic renewal, and the Jesus Movement, which came out from the West Coast and the counterculture. As the 1970s gave way to the ’80s, Moon said, the mainline churches, which had been “the early pro-Israel churches,” began pulling away to form progressive Christian initiatives like the publication Sojourners, which takes a pro-Palestinian editorial stance.

We see that antisemitism is here, we are calling it out, it’s hatred. And trying to replace that hate with something beautiful.

The same year of Philos’ founding, in 2014, Moon wrote a piece in The Tower about how evangelical support for Israel was shifting. In the piece, he cited powerful evangelical institutions like Wheaton College (sometimes called “the Harvard of Christian schools”), influential megachurch Willow Creek, and Christian charity World Vision, who were sowing anti-Israel sentiment in evangelical communities. In our conversation, Moon described a U.S. Christian landscape in which he estimates around 20% were anti-Israel, 20% were die-hard supporters, and the rest constituted a mushy middle that was underengaged on Israel. Philos, he said, was intended to “capture that 60%” through programming that would engage them specifically.

In addition to the educational programs and the Action League, Philos has offices intended to engage Hispanic and Black communities, as well as arrange “VIP trips” to Israel for prominent evangelical and Christian leaders who would be disinclined to go under the auspices of evangelical organizations. “We were very intentional about tone, how you talk about things,” Moon said, eschewing what he said was “a lot of bombastic rhetoric” in an effort to “update the conversation a little bit.”

In a 2022 podcast interview with Tikvah, Nicholson compared evangelicalism to the other counterculture movements that sprang up around the same time in the U.S. in the 1960s and ’70s. “Israel, its mere existence in the modern world, has played a big role in fostering Christianity, and specifically evangelical Christianity,” he said, since the establishment of the Jewish state was viewed by many denominations “as a theological sign, as a historical, an eschatological sign that God was still active in the world, still cared about his chosen people, and thereby kindled this fire anew within large swaths of American Protestants.” Likening pro-Israel evangelicals of that era to a revolutionary vanguard, “when evangelicalism was still something of a rebellion,” Nicholson said that as the original revolutionaries fade from the scene, subsequent generations are disinclined to pick up the standard. “That excitement that they felt in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said, “has really begun to diminish in the minds of young evangelicals for whom all those things are you know, they might as well have been 150, a thousand years ago.”

Moon attended a few events in different states solo as a counterprotester, such as a 2021 Teaneck, New Jersey, demonstration advocating for the U.S. to cut funding to Israel, and a pro-BDS demonstration in Vermont. He decided he couldn’t rely on his own social network to rearrange their schedules to join him on a moment’s notice: “I thought, you know, let’s start this thing where it’s just like, any time there’s an antisemitic incident, we have Christians show up physically.”

The idea for PAL was born, with staffer Hannah Garces suggesting members show up with white roses as a tribute to German anti-Nazi activists Hans and Sophie Scholl, who were guillotined by the regime in 1943 for their roles in the student-led White Rose resistance movement.

PAL’s form of resistance to rising antisemitism looks a little different than the Scholls’, however. “We’re not losing our lives for it,” said Garces. Rather, it is the ministry of presence. “When we go and show up, we bring a bouquet of white roses, to either the Jewish community center that was defaced with graffiti or to an individual’s home, if we can, someone who was attacked, to just say you have friends who are Christians who are standing with you. We see that antisemitism is here, we are calling it out, it’s hatred. And trying to replace that hate with something beautiful.”

Moon estimates around 80% of PAL calls for members to show up for an embattled Jewish community are met. “They’re excited to respond,” he said. And the responses from the Jewish communities in question are positive, according to Moon.

On Jan. 11 of this year, PAL’s Twitter account posted a photo of a bouquet of white roses, saying that a volunteer named Meghan had delivered them to the Madison, Wisconsin, Chabad Jewish Center some weeks prior, in response to an act of vandalism at the UW Hillel Foundation. “It was very kind and much appreciated,” said Rabbi Mandel Matusof of the Chabad Rohr Jewish Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in an email to Tablet. “I told many students who were all very grateful knowing that there is a large community of non-Jews who stand with us against antisemitism and hate.”

A PAL volunteer also visited Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, after a gunman held four people hostage in the synagogue in January of last year. “I was deeply touched by the sincerity of the gesture and the personal nature of the conversation,” said interim Rabbi Scott Sperling, who received the flowers from the young woman, in a text. “The Philos Action League seem to be genuinely concerned about making their impact be both about broadly combatting antisemitism and recognizing that real people are deeply affected by [its] poisonous impact.” Sperling said the congregation displayed the bouquet together with one delivered by a family from a nearby church in the synagogue’s foyer. “The thoughtfulness that they displayed during the weekend that we commemorated the hostage-taking lifted everyone’s spirits as they did mine. We deeply appreciated their kind gesture.”

We do know that there is an education need for the Christian community, kind of to know what’s happening, how to handle it, and how to just be the best friend they can to the Jewish people.

Recruiting, however, is a different matter. Moon’s goal for 2022 was 10,000 members, and he got 2,000, “which is annoying to me,” he said. “I don’t know why it’s so hard.”

This shortage cannot be attributed solely to evangelical re-sorting, since PAL members are Christians of various denominations. Moon attributes many of the members PAL has attracted thus far to in-person encounters, such as the ones he had at Turning Point USA’s second annual America Fest. Moon said he had attended a panel on Israel that day with TPUSA students who had been to Israel earlier that year. Moon said the students described antisemitism as “a huge issue.” He “barraged them afterward,” he said, letting them know about PAL and encouraging them to sign up.

America Fest’s roster of featured speakers included Donald Trump Jr., Blake Masters, and Lauren Boebert. I told Moon it might be surprising for many to hear these sentiments expressed in such a venue. “It’s very easy for conservatives to talk about Israel, very easy,” said Moon, who describes himself as a conservative. But, he said, “we haven’t been a good friend to Jewish people.” He attributes it to a lack of familiarity.

“I didn’t know Jews, actually,” said Moon, who grew up in Seattle, and has hopped around among various evangelical and mainline Protestant denominations in his religious life. “I don’t think I knew any Jews until I moved to D.C.,” he said, around a decade ago.

“On the conservative side, the challenge, a big emphasis of my plan for 2023 on the PAL side,” he said, “is relationships with Jews, modeling what that’s like, how to do that.” Moon is making that his goal, he said, “because I’m worried about conservatives not knowing any Jews, and therefore it’s easy when you don’t know anybody from the other side,” he said, to slide into prejudice and hatred. “Especially when you’re only conflicting over politics.”

Moon’s goal is to bridge the gap between Christians and their Jewish neighbors, “less for them,” he said of the latter, “and more for my side. I want people who listen to me to understand.” He cites concerns over children as an example. “I think there’s a lot of things the Jewish community does that I think that parents of kids across the board also worried about. ‘What have you done? How has it worked with your community?’” he said. “There’s a lot of things we can talk about in common.” He hopes modeling this kind of dialogue in a relationship will replicate in other Christian communities.

Randy Osborne is a PAL volunteer who came onboard after Philos pitched it to his organization, conservative interest group Eagle Forum. Osborne said they were skeptical on their end at first, but Philos “showed who they were, what they were about.” He said he felt a need to get involved in response to what he sees as a rising tide of antisemitism in his state of Florida. “As a Christian,” he said, he felt it was important to show the Jews in his state “that we stand behind them, we support them, and this is not who we are, and this is not who our country is.”

Part of the Philos pitch at Eagles Forum had included an explanation of the White Rose resisters. Osborne said he had never heard the story before, but it intrigued him. It was to be the symbolism of the white roses that would smooth over some initial awkwardness when he arrived at synagogues.

Osborne said he has been on a PAL response a couple of times: in Tallahassee and Gainesville, Florida, after a synagogue burning at the former, and the spreading of antisemitic flyers in the latter. He describes being met with initial skepticism by the rabbis at each location. But when presented with the white roses, Osborne said, “both of them got teary eyed over it, it was just an emotional time.” They grasped their significance right away, he said: “They know what we’re there for.”

As the Scholls’ inspiration shows, PAL fits within both contemporary and historical movements of Christians attempting to combat rising tides of antisemitism through engagement and education. They are “standing on the shoulders of those who came before us,” Garces said. Before Luke Moon was Father Ed Dowling, the priest who advised the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In a message to Tablet, Dawn Eden Goldstein, author of the biography Father Ed: The Story of Bill W.’s Spiritual Sponsor, described Dowling as “one of the most visible allies of Jews,” even before the Catholic Church officially denounced antisemitism in 1965. Dowling’s rhetoric before WWII, referring to the Nazis as “Europe’s hoodlum parties,” and praising a nun imprisoned by Hitler, earned him the opprobrium of his superiors at the time. Goldstein said that in 1934, Dowling also collaborated with Rabbi Ferdinand M. Isserman on a series of social justice lectures, and in 1944, opened his Cana Conference marriage support groups, intended to help couples improve their communication skills, up to Jewish as well as Catholic couples. “At that time, it was unheard of for a Catholic priest to include Jews on an equal basis in his public outreach,” Goldstein said. More recently, on Dec. 14, 2022, the International Council of Christians and Jews put out a statement calling on U.S. churches to confront antisemitism in their country, which they described as “a level of antisemitic rhetoric and violence not seen since the Second World War.”

On both fronts, Philos has their work cut out for them: on the Christian left, flagging support for Israel, on the right, an unfamiliarity with Jews at risk of breeding contempt. “We do know that there is an education need for the Christian community,” Garces said, “kind of to know what’s happening, how to handle it, and how to just be the best friend they can to the Jewish people.” Moon agrees, especially on the issue of antisemitism. “Jews know about antisemitism, like the frequency of it,” he said. “I would say until Kanye said what he said, it was pretty common for us to hear from people, ‘Oh, that’s happening? That’s a thing?’ Like, they just don’t. People are unaware.”

Garces acknowledges, as Osborne’s experiences attest, that the nature of PAL’s mission can be sensitive.

“You get looked at a lot of different ways, especially when you’re a Christian advocating for this, because I think people don’t expect it to come from there,” said Garces, who grew up in a what she describes as an evangelical-adjacent nondenominational church. Countering concerns that she has an ulterior conversion motive, she said, “I’m just here to be a friend. We have a shared faith. My faith is only possible because of the Jewish people, so it’s just a natural thing for me to want to be a friend, I mean, Philos means friend.”

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.

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