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Friends in Deed

Evangelical Christians have emerged as Israel’s staunchest allies—even as some American Jews are made uneasy by the show of support

Lee Smith
March 16, 2010
Pastor John Hagee addresses a crowd waving Israeli and U.S. flags at a 2008 Jerusalem rally.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)
Pastor John Hagee addresses a crowd waving Israeli and U.S. flags at a 2008 Jerusalem rally.(Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

“My time with evangelical Christians has made me a better Jew,” says David Brog, the executive director of Christians United For Israel (CUFI). “It made me take my faith more seriously.” Evangelicals also take Judaism seriously, a conviction that over the last 20 years has variously surprised, pleased, and frightened Jews across the American political spectrum, even as the country’s massive evangelical movement has proven to be Israel’s unshakable ally. While the current occupant of the White House and his Jewish advisors appear eager for any excuse to keep Jerusalem at arm’s distance, evangelicals continue to love the Jewish state.

We’re sitting in the lobby of a Georgetown hotel, and Brog is a bit jet-lagged after just returning from a trip to Israel, where he escorted a group of 600 evangelicals. For many of them it was their first trip to the Holy Land. “Even as a Jew,” says Brog, “I can appreciate the excitement in the eyes of my Christian friends as they trace the trajectory of Jesus’s life.”

Brog’s evangelicals meet Israel’s leaders, like President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Brog’s cousin and Israel’s most decorated soldier. “He was one of my heroes even before I knew we were related,” explains the 43-year-old lawyer who looks more like a mid-career Christian Slater than his cousin, the military hero.

While escorting evangelicals through the landmarks of their faith, Brog introduces his charges to the modern Middle East. The Galilee, where Jesus lived and worked, is where Hezbollah rains rockets down on the villages from which Jesus recruited his disciples; Jerusalem, where he died for man’s sins, is protected by a security barrier against the suicidal designs of the enemies of God’s chosen people. And for evangelicals, even as the Jews rejected Jesus, God never rejected the Jews, who remain God’s chosen people.

The Biblical verse that inspires American evangelicals’ love for the Jews, the nation that gave them their savior, is Genesis 12:3: “I will bless them that bless thee,” God told Abraham, “and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” Their philo-Semitism is a reversal of the millennia-old Christian tradition of replacement theology, or the belief that God’s covenant with the Jews was superseded by his covenant with the church through Jesus Christ. Central to this understanding is the interpretation of the word “Israel.” “Evangelicals read the Bible literally,” says Brog. “If you take Israel to mean Christ’s church, then this can be used as an example of God rejecting the Jews. But if you believe Israel means the Jews, then the Bible becomes a Zionist book.”

The fact that sacred history is alive to evangelicals can make them powerful advocates for the modern state of Israel. Their witness extends beyond the congregations, small churches, and mega-cathedrals spread throughout the country and now reaches all the way to Washington, D.C., where Brog shows them how to put their philo-Semitism to practical use. “When they come up to meet with their congressmen or senators,” says Brog, “we share with them the details of timely legislation like the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act.” That is to say, they show them how to support it.

And it is because evangelicals read the Bible literally that their political language describing Israel’s trials is of a different weight and timbre. For the U.S. policy establishment, the question is whether Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats against the Jewish state may be a rhetorical ploy or a boastful appraisal of Iranian military capability. For evangelicals, there is no question that Ahmadinejad has identified himself as the latest in the long line of the hunters—murderers of Jews—and that he must be stopped by any means necessary.

So, why are American Jews suspicious of Israel’s new best friends? It is both because of and despite the fact that, as Brog says, “for most of our history, Jews have had a very lonely walk.”

“Two thousand years of history suggests that Christian religious fervor is not necessarily a good thing for Jews,” says Walter Russell Mead, a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations who is working on a book about American support for Israel. “If the public culture of the U.S. is more ostentatiously and visibly Christian, I am not surprised that Jews get a little nervous.”

And yet as Mead has explained in a recent series of posts on his blog on the American Interest website, it is hardly news that most Americans stand strongly with Israel—regardless of the feelings of the elites. “Public opinion is moving even more in a pro-Israel direction,” Mead told me over the phone. “While the American elites drift the other way.” This increased polarization between the American public and the elites on the question of Israel, Mead believes, is what’s behind the Israel Lobby phenomenon, or the notion that powerful forces behind the scenes are driving U.S. policy in a direction contrary to the interests and wishes of American taxpayers.

“If you’re a university professor at an average east coast college, most of your gentile colleagues are not very sympathetic to Israel. Support for Israel is fading away with everyone you know, except for Jews,” Mead explains. Since we all tend to universalize from our own experience, he suggests, “it seems that ‘everybody’ changed their minds on Israel”—making it hard for university professors to understand why Israel continues to attract support in Congress. What they miss is the fact that the professoriate’s stance on Israel is highly atypical of the way that the rest of the country feels. “Occam’s razor says you don’t need to posit an occult force to explain why Americans support Israel,” Mead says.

In fact, American support for Zionism predates not only the current-day state of Israel, but also the founding of the United States. The early settlers of this country gave their children Hebrew names and imagined they were founding a city on a hill, the New Jerusalem. Still, as Peter Grose explained in his 1984 book Israel in the Mind of America, “It was the idealized Jew of scripture, rather than contemporary reality, that inspired early America.” England was the actual engine of Christian Zionism where, as Barbara Tuchman documents in her Bible and Sword, major figures across the centuries including David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill argued for a restoration of the Jews to their biblical homeland. It wasn’t until after World War II that Americans took over the leadership of the Christian Zionist movement.

“The British couldn’t juggle a relationship with both the Arabs and Zionists,” says Mead. “Their experience of trying to run the Balfour mandate is what soured many of the Brits on Zionism, and as a weak power they were dependent on Arab sentiment to hold their position. The United States realized that we could do things the Brits couldn’t, like triangulate. The Arab-Israeli straddle is not the only one we do. We managed the Franco-German straddle, and we had the same experience with Greece and Turkey.”

Still, the descendants of those early American Christians who, for instance, gave Yale University a Hebrew motto in the 17th century, were not thrilled by the Zionist project 300 years later. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the mainline Protestant churches dispatched missionaries to the Holy Land, where, after finding little success in converting Jews and Muslims, they began to preach America’s civic religion of democracy and liberty. In the Middle East, a doctrine that would elide confessional difference was an attractive alternative to minorities seeking equal footing with the region’s Sunni Muslim majority. Arab nationalism bound Christians together with their Muslim countrymen in a new, nonreligious identity premised on their, ostensibly, shared history and language.

In helping to foster Arab nationalism, American missionaries played a large role in promoting what was to become the ideological underpinnings of the first wave of anti-Zionism. Given their past sympathies with the Arab nationalist project and antipathy to the Jewish one, it is no wonder that mainline churches in America are more likely to promote boycotts of Israel rather than support the Jewish state.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and Israel’s goodwill ambassador to the Evangelical movement, understood back in the ’80s that the evangelical movement was a powerful political as well as cultural force. In spite of stiff opposition from the American Jewish community, he reached out to these unlikely partners.

“When I first brought Jerry Falwell to a synagogue in Chicago 30 years ago,” Eckstein told me in a phone call, “I had my head handed to me. He was not just a lightning rod, but he was seen as the enemy incarnate. At the time, the Jewish community looked to the right for anti-Semitism, not to the left. Jews were traditionally liberal Democrats. So, the Jewish community was scared and anxious, and the first question they asked when they saw Falwell on cover of Time magazine was, ‘Is this good or bad for the Jews?’ Their sense was that it was bad.”

Rabbi Eckstein pointed out that just as you don’t agree with your friends about everything, the Jewish community didn’t have to agree with the evangelicals on every concern—especially issues like abortion, prayer in school, and more recently gay marriage—just to have a fruitful relationship on Israel.

“At a time when you had Methodists supporting the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Pat Robertson was saying we need to stand with Israel, the Jewish community was caught in a situation. They realized that Israel needs friends, and that mainline Christians can’t be relied on, and here is this growing movement that stands with Israel.” In time, as Eckstein explains, the same Jewish organizations that once shunned him for his outreach to evangelicals came to see him as a godsend. “Five or six years ago Hadassah wouldn’t take an ad from us, and now we fund one of their projects.”

Nonetheless, even Eckstein couldn’t have entirely foreseen a situation in which evangelical support would appear to be essential to the survival of the Jewish state. “I didn’t realize 35 years ago that Israel and the Jewish people would be so needy for friends, so alone facing this existential threat and that the ones who would come to stand by them would be these evangelical Christians.”

Brog was similarly caught by surprise when he was working on the Hill as Senator Arlen Specter’s chief of staff. “Whenever there was a terror attack in Israel, it wasn’t Jews from Philadelphia who were calling in large numbers to express their concern, but Christians from the middle of Pennsylvania.”

Eventually Brog teamed up with John Hagee, pastor of the CornerStone Church in San Antonio, Texas, CEO of John Hagee Ministries, and founder of CUFI. Hagee has been a lightning rod for political controversy, most recently during the 2008 presidential campaign when John McCain first accepted and then rejected Hagee’s support—after the minister was believed to have made anti-Semitic remarks. “Pastor Hagee has spent 30 years of his life defending Israel,” Brog explains. “His whole ministry is about teaching people it’s not enough to love the Jews of the Bible but time to start loving the Jews across the street.”

Hagee’s mistake was in stepping into a theological tradition as old as man’s sense of the divine —theodicy, or explaining the ways of God to men. Hagee reasoned that according to God’s plan the purpose of Hitler’s genocide was to return the remnants of world Jewry back to Israel. “For Christians like Pastor Hagee,” says Brog, “and for Orthodox Jews, God is omnipotent. So, the theological dilemma they must wrestle with is why didn’t this omnipotent creator stop the Holocaust?”

Of course, it’s God plan for the Holy Land that has so many Jews concerned about evangelical support. Since the restoration of the Jews is in some accounts a precondition of Christ’s second coming, it’s argued that the evangelicals see the Jews merely as disposable pieces on a cosmic chessboard.

“Evangelical support for Israel is founded not on a prophecy, but on a promise,” says Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. The South African-born Hedding, who was held in a South African state security court in the ’80s for his opposition to the apartheid regime, is a formidable physical presence, even on the phone. “It is not about trying to use Jews as prophetic pawns,” says Hedding. “It is the promise God made to Abraham that the Jewish people would receive the land of Canaan for the sake of world redemption. The Jewish people became servants of the lord, in order to bring an understanding of revelation of God and his redemptive purpose to the world. Evangelicals defend their right to live in peace and security in land of Canaan, support that comes out of a sense of gratitude for what we’ve received.”

The end of times is in God’s mind, and perhaps man’s future. In the meantime, for the evangelicals, anyway, there is the gratitude that Hedding speaks of—a gratitude that is characteristically absent from Western secular societies that trace their roots only as far back as the Enlightenment and whose spokesmen often stigmatize the State of Israel as an atavistic holdover whose existence runs contrary to the tenets upon which our latest version of modernity was founded. American evangelicals believe that what Christians received from the Jews is nothing less than the foundations of our civilization, which begins not with Voltaire or Jefferson, but with the conviction spelled out in the Hebrew Bible that man is created in God’s image. The same tradition that inspired our Founding Fathers to create a republic in which all men were held to be created equal also inspired the Jews to create a state, supported by evangelical Christians. Their gratitude should not be taken lightly.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.