Earlier this year, two ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in the Israeli Knesset, United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Asher, submitted a bill that would make religious proselytization punishable by jail time. Though Gafni, a longtime Knesset member, reportedly unsuccessfully submits a similar bill at the start of every Knesset as a “procedural formality,” this time the proposal was met with alarm by evangelicals after Christian media in the United States reported the story in March.
Penny Nance, CEO and President of Concerned Women for America, an evangelical Christian legislative action committee headquartered in Washington, warned, for instance, “If this became law, evangelicals on tour from the US if led by the Holy Spirit to share the gospel with their tour guide would risk imprisonment.”
United Torah Judaism’s political clout has recently increased due to its position in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right ruling coalition, with Gafni also serving on the Knesset Finance Committee, and this is what may have prompted the media attention and subsequent panic. Yet Netanyahu was quick to dismiss his allies’ bill, responding to the uproar with the reassuring tweet, “We will not advance any law against the Christian community.”
Juergan Buehler, President of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, a Christian Zionist organization, thanked the prime minister and noted how “he has done much over his long political career to strengthen and guard Israel’s relations with Christians worldwide, and our embrace of this nation is warmly returned.”
Netanyahu has fostered close connections with leaders such as Buehler and John Hagee, the founder and national chair of Christians United for Israel, the primary Christian Zionist organization in the United States, which claims over 11 million members.
Indeed, Netanyahu has fostered close connections with leaders such as Buehler and John Hagee, the founder and national chair of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the primary Christian Zionist organization in the United States, which claims over 11 million members. In a 2017 recorded address to the thousands of attendees at CUFI’s annual conference in Washington, Netanyahu thanked his “Christian friends of Israel,” saying, “You are always there for us. We have no better friends on earth than you.”
Netanyahu’s guarantee about the anti-proselytizing bill undoubtedly aimed to soothe the Christians upon whom he and the Israeli settler colonial project rely for support, namely those white evangelicals who count themselves among CUFI or similar organizations’ members and who vote for zealous supporters of Israel such as former President Donald Trump. The move thus demonstrates the continued close connections between white evangelicals and the Israeli government, despite the ruling coalition’s more (Jewish) theocratic turn.
Yet CUFI and its ilk do not represent all evangelical Christians, and those who eschew these right-wing Christian Zionist entities appear to be a growing demographic, at least in the United States. Such fissures among American evangelicals have the potential to weaken Christian Zionist political influence, curbing a key lever of US support for the Zionist enterprise.
Evangelicals and Christian Zionism
Not all evangelicals, who are estimated to make up one quarter of the US population, are Christian Zionists, though 80 percent of this group have expressed the Christian Zionist belief that the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the “regathering” of millions of Jewish people there “were fulfillments of Bible prophecy that show we are getting closer to the return of Jesus Christ.” This widespread view among evangelicals is based in the notion that four millennia ago God promised the land to the Jews, who will supposedly rule it until Jesus’s return to Jerusalem and the rapture—which will result in Christians’ ascent into heaven while nonbelievers (including Jews) will perish.
Another prevalent strand of Christian Zionism is based in an interpretation of the Old Testament verse in which God says to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” As scholar Dan Hummel has noted, Christian Zionists consider Abraham a “stand-in” for the Jewish people. “Their reading of that passage is that the way to accrue blessings from God is to bless the Jewish people,” he says. “They interpret that to mean support for the state of Israel.”
Because any development that shores up the modern state of Israel serves, in Christian Zionists’ eyes, to both signal and bring about the eschatological scenario and/or to ensure God’s blessing, they are avid supporters of the Israeli state’s expansionist aims.
Because any development that shores up the modern state of Israel serves, in Christian Zionists’ eyes, to both signal and bring about the eschatological scenario and/or to ensure God’s blessing, they are avid supporters of the Israeli state’s expansionist aims, including its settlements and desired annexation of the West Bank, which Zionists and Christian Zionists refer to as “Judea and Samaria.”
Christian Zionist support is manifested in a formidable voting and lobbying force. The Atlantic, for instance, has called white evangelicals “the most powerful voting bloc in America.” CUFI’s annual conference also includes a day of lobbying in which more than a thousand members meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Evangelical churches and groups also volunteer in Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, helping, for example, to harvest grapes in settlers’ vineyards. Journalistic investigations have found that evangelical money is “flowing” into settlements, and many channel funds to organizations such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which calls itself, “The largest and most effective ministry providing Christians with opportunities to fulfill biblical prophecy by supporting Israel and the Jewish people with lifesaving aid.”
Demographic and Ideological Shifts
While evangelicals and the Christian Zionists among them may be a powerful force for Israel, they constitute a group with diverse beliefs and backgrounds that also shift over time. In 2021, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a study on Americans’ religious affiliations, which contained a striking finding: the percentage of white evangelicals in the United States is significantly declining. In 2006, the demographic comprised 23 percent of the US population, while in 2020 the number had decreased to 14.5 percent. PRRI’s data also showed that older white Americans are much more likely to be evangelical: 22 percent of those in this group are 65 and older, while for those between 18 and 29 the number is only 7 percent. Though this can in part be explained by an overall decline in religiosity among younger Americans (as well as the possibility that younger people might become evangelical later in life), the evangelical group was more disproportionately older than other Christian groups. The Washington Post also emphasized the study’s discovery that evangelicals now comprise a larger percentage of Black Americans than white Americans (35 percent to 23 percent).
Recent shifts among younger evangelicals are dramatic: a 2021 survey showed that they are quickly becoming much less supportive of Israel than older evangelicals.
These statistics, in combination with polling and analysis by researchers such as Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, demonstrate that change is afoot when it comes to American evangelicals’ relationship with Israel. Telhami notes that evangelicals have been a core constituency of the Israeli right for decades, intensifying their support during the Obama and Trump years. At the same time, recent shifts among younger evangelicals are dramatic: a 2021 survey showed that they are quickly becoming much less supportive of Israel than older evangelicals. The poll found that support for Israel among the younger group dropped from 75 percent to 34 percent between 2018 and 2021. Telhami’s polling of evangelicals, which he began in 2015, shows a similar trend, and that the gap between the age groups had already widened significantly by 2018.
The reasons for this development are manifold. The first is the demographic change exhibited in the PRRI study, namely that the percentage of white evangelicals, including among younger evangelicals, is declining—and non-white evangelicals tend to be more even-handed in their views on Palestine and Israel. Furthermore, younger Americans have in recent years become more concerned with social justice issues, and this has impacted young evangelicals as well, who are beginning to look at Palestine through a social justice lens rather than using biblical prophecy. “Evangelicals are still a very supportive community when it comes to Israel and that’s not going to change immediately,” Telhami told this author. “But there are signs indicating trouble in the relationship ahead.”
Challenging the US Status Quo
Netanyahu’s quick work with the anti-proselytizing bill demonstrates the Israeli far right’s persistent cozy relations with evangelicals—a population that is becoming ever more important to a government that is alienating secular, progressive, and younger Jews, both in Israel and in the United States. Recent protests against the government’s proposed judicial reform, which would curb the supreme court’s ability to check the agenda of the extremist, ultrareligious coalition, demonstrate this schism. Moreover, evangelical Christian Zionists outnumber Jewish Zionists; it is often noted, for example, that the number of members CUFI claims is larger than the total number of Jews in the United States.
Even before the current government came to power, the Israeli right’s inclination toward American evangelicals over Jews was apparent.
Even before the current government came to power, the Israeli right’s inclination toward American evangelicals over Jews was apparent. In May 2021, former Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer proclaimed that “the backbone of Israel’s support in the United States is the evangelical Christians…because of their passionate and unequivocal support for Israel.” Dermer then noted that, in contrast, American Jews are “disproportionately among our critics.” Dermer’s remarks echoed those of Trump, who in a 2018 interview about the choice to move the US embassy to Jerusalem claimed that those most happy with the decision were the evangelicals. While President Biden may not have the close ties with evangelicals that Trump did, he has reached out to the population more than his Democratic predecessors and has failed to reverse many of Trump’s Christian Zionist-friendly policies, such as the embassy move.
Yet with younger evangelicals moving away from robust support for Israel, patronage from this group may not be something on which future Israeli or American administrations can rely. Dermer, in follow-up remarks, seemed prescient in this regard when he stated that Israel should conduct more outreach among American evangelicals as their strong support “may not be the case 50 years from now, or 100 years from now.”
How would such a weakening of evangelical support affect US politics vis-à-vis Palestine and Israel? As the John Hagees of the world and their followers “age out,” fewer votes and dollars and less time lobbying could open more space for social justice-oriented positions and policies on Israel and Palestine. While the longtime and steadfast work of civil society organizations and grassroots collectives advocating for Palestinians are netting some positive effects, for instance through the election of Palestinian rights supporters such as Democrat Rashida Tlaib to Congress, these entities and politicians are up against the huge numbers and vast resources of establishments like CUFI and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
Palestinian rights organizations and initiatives are working both together and with groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and the Movement for Black Lives to confront these forces and push for justice. However, tackling Christian Zionism is not always at the forefront of advocates’ minds. Palestinian American activist Jonathan Brenneman has noted that “in most analyses of US policy, [Christian Zionism] is given lip service but is not deeply investigated.” He and Israeli American Aidan Orly have written about the danger of this trend, arguing that it overlooks “the original and largest worldwide movement seeking full Jewish control in Palestine—and one of the largest and most consequential anti-Muslim, antisemitic and antidemocratic movements of our time.”
Undertaking systematic outreach to the burgeoning group of young evangelicals that is interested in social justice and issues such as gun control, LGBTQ rights, the environment, and racial equality—as well as in questioning Christian Zionism—is imperative. Likewise, drawing attention to the fact that pro-Israel Democrats side with the religious far right when it comes to relations with Israel could push these lawmakers to question and potentially shift their positions, given that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to seek accountability for human rights violations of Palestinians. Such efforts would capitalize on social change and help ensure that Palestinians do not have to wait 50 or 100 more years for justice.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
Featured image credit: GPO