BY MICHAEL CURTIS, GATESTONE—
Jews in democratic countries are disproportionately disposed more than other groups to prefer the left spectrum of political and cultural affairs — a spectrum that is in general unfriendly to the evangelical Christian movement. It is therefore not surprising that only 20% of Jewish Americans hold a favorable opinion of the Christian right, the members of which tend to be favorable to the Republican Party. Yet it is strange when one considers that fact that Evangelical Christians have been strong supporters of Israel. A reasonable conclusion might be that for many American Jews, social and cultural values are more significant than support for Israel. Clearly, differences between many Jews and Christians, especially evangelicals, exist on social questions such as abortion, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and political issues, such as separation of church and state. Such differences, however, do not, and should not, prevent a cordial and supportive relationship between those churches and the state of Israel.
Many Christian Evangelicals have supported Israel politically and financially since its creation. Evangelicals may even be the strongest single group supporting Israel. Theologically, a considerable number of evangelicals believe that Jews must possess their historic right to the land before Jesus can return. With the return of Jew to the Holy Land, evangelicals await the coming of the apocalypse, the return of Christ, and the conversion of Jews. Specifically, Israel is seen as playing a key role in events that will lead to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Accordingly, the holders of this view support the existence of the state of Israel and believe it will play a role in world affairs. Among the groups holding this position are Eagle Wings, Christian Friends of Israel, Bridges for Peace, and Christians United for Israel, which claims a membership of over one million. They often quote and take literally, Genesis 12, in which the Lord is quoted as saying to Abraham, “And I will bless them that bless thee and curse him that curseth thee.”
Evangelical supporters also sometimes refer to the Biblical passage in Ezekiel (36: 24); writing at the time of the Babylonian captivity, Ezekiel declared that God is speaking to the house of Israel: “I will gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land.” Christians also seem to appreciate and support contemporary Israel as a democratic nation, exemplifying individual freedom, the rule of law and modernity in a geographical area otherwise devoid of these attributes. Endorsement also results from the realistic understanding that Israel has been subject to constant attack by modern Pharaohs in the Middle East and elsewhere who call, directly and indirectly, not only for boycott and divestment of the state but also repeatedly from Iran, for the genocidal elimination of Israel — “Wiping it off the map” — — in violation of both Iran’s obligation as a signatory to the United Nations Charter, which prohibits any member nation from declaring war on another member nation, and as a signatory to the 1948 Treaty Against Genocide.
For evangelicals, religious and political beliefs merge: God maintains the Biblical covenant with the Jewish people, even though they were and are not perfect; and further, the religious belief in Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land is deeper than the geopolitical argument. However, some parts of that covenant are more controversial than others in concrete interpretation for evangelicals; in particular Genesis (15:18); “Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.” Public opinion surveys show that Evangelicals are likely to say that religious belief was the single biggest influence leading them to sympathize with Israel, to believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, that Israel fulfills the biblical prophecy about the Second Coming of Jesus, and to declare they were more sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians.
Surveys also show that in the first decade of the 21st century the greatest increase in support for Israel of any religious group came from the Evangelicals. Although this support may partly result from the attempt to force the Second Coming, it is more likely to stem from a variety of factors: God’s promise to bless those who bless the Jews; appreciation that Jews provided the basis of Christianity; remorse over the Holocaust and over the past animosity of Christian churches towards Jews; the belief that God will judge people on how they treat Jews; and the appreciation of the democratic and religious free society that exists in Israel.
Christian churches, as a result of international pressure organized by Palestinians and their allies, now have to consider resolutions calling for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Unlike the Evangelicals, mainstream Protestant churches have been sympathetic to Palestinian Christians and the Palestinian narrative for some time, and have sought to raise awareness of what they call persecution or oppression of the Palestinians. Increasingly they recommend economic action against Israel and those who do business with it.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America represented the Evangelical position when it rejected divestment proposals regarding Israel in 2007 and 2011. By contrast mainstream religious adherents have differed on this question. To its credit, the United Methodist Church, in spite of considerable pressure, on May 2, 2012 at its meeting in Tampa, rejected a resolution calling for the Church to join the Palestinian-inspired boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against three companies trading with Israel. The UMC had rejected similar resolutions at its previous General Conference in 2008. The UMC in 2012, by a vote of 2 to 1, opposed action against Caterpillar which supplies bulldozers to Israel; Hewlett-Packard, which provides advanced biometric technology; and Motorola Solutions which supplies surveillance equipment.
The UMC, however, spoke with an uncertain voice. By a 60 to 40 vote, it did adopt a resolution recommending nations should prohibit the import of products manufactured in “Israeli settlements on Palestinian land” — perhaps a warning sign that members of the UMC in some geographical areas did support both boycott and divestment resolutions against Israel. Palestinian pressure is already building to influence the vote at the forthcoming general assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA that will vote on a divestment resolution in June 2012.
Mainstream American missionaries in the past, fostering Arab nationalism for religious reasons, promoted anti-Zionism, if not always anti-Semitism. The existence of Israel as a legitimate state is now being challenged in a number of ways and by a variety of media: by a Palestinian-initiated offensive to portray Palestinians as suffering from human rights abuses and colonial crimes committed by Israel; by the Electronic Intifada, an online Internet news website; by the United Methodist Kairos Response; by individuals and groups, such as the writers and academics Grace Halsell, Timothy Weber, Tony Campolo, and Gary Burge, (Wheaton College), as well as attendees, especially Stephen Sizer, the anti-Zionist Church of England priest, at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conferences organized by the Bethlehem Bible College.
Now, however, a shift in attitude is observable among some Evangelicals. In the past, more extreme figures, such as Campolo, Burge, or Jim Wallis (Sojourners) always championed the Palestinian cause. More recently, however, major leaders such as Rick Warren have seemed to be sympathetic to Muslims; Hank Hanegraaff (The Bible Answer Man), who has been critical of Israel for some time, attended a symposium at Tehran University; Lynne Hybels, wife of the mega-pastor Bill Hybels; and popular speakers such as Shane Claiborne have tended to echo the Palestinian agenda and narrative in speaking to new and younger audiences within Evangelicalism.
Their argument is more based on a number of political factors stemming from acceptance of the fallacious Palestinian narrative of victimhood and unending Israeli oppression of Palestinians — helpful for the Palestinian government to instruct its citizens not to look at it and the corruption and wretched governance as the source of the misery, but instead at Israel and the Jews — less on theological grounds than on politically expedient ones, such as the refusal to agree to be ruled over by anyone non-Muslim. Further, there are no adverse consequences to demonizing Israel as there would be, for example, if if one were to demonize Russia. They minimize the existence of anti-Semitism, and brush aside or totally ignore Islamist attacks on Israel. They openly refuse to accept Israel with a dominant Jewish population , now in existence for 64 years, as an independent, self-governing entity. Instead they advocate the creation of a Palestinian state, sometimes alongside the state of Israel, but often in place of it.
It is therefore heartening to learn of these Evangelicals, such as the members of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Faith Church in Hungary, the largest evangelical church in Europe, who are opposing this attempt to disparage and to delegitimize the state of Israel.
An exceptional individual who has been an important counterweight to the disparagers of Israel is Dr. Kenneth Meshoe, a member of the South African Parliament, president of the African Christian Democratic Party, and pastor of a South African Church. What is particularly significant about pastor Meshoe is that he, as a black South African, on a number of occasions, has put paid to the lie spread by the Palestinian narrative, that Israel is an apartheid state. At the international conference of legislators from around the world held in Budapest on October 31, 2011, Pastor Meshoe replied to the kind of fulminations published by the Electronic Intifada that Israeli actions are “the epitome of apartheid” and aim at the systematic destruction of Palestinian society. He describes those who promulgate the lie of Israel-as-apartheid as ignorant individuals who are not aware of, or who deliberately disregard, the true nature of the negative impact of apartheid on black South Africans — an experience quite different from that of Palestinians in nature and intensity. South African blacks were treated as second-class citizens and were denied basic human rights. By contrast, he points out that in Israel there are no laws discriminating against people on the basis of their color or on the basis of their religion. Palestinians have not suffered the pain of apartheid experienced by black South Africans.
Pastor Meshoe amplifies his general remarks by specific examples. He calls attention to the fact that in South Africa there were separate modes of transport for blacks and whites; there were coaches in trains only for black people, and others only for whites. Segregation was present in schools, hospitals, public places, city parks, benches, chairs, beaches. No such segregation exists in Israel.
In view of this empirical evidence why do members of some Churches and their leaders argue Israel is an apartheid state? Palestinians have used this falsehood to gain sympathy for their cause. By doing so they, and their allies in the churches as elsewhere, purportedly concerned with “Palestinian suffering,” are their own worst enemies. By maintaining the animosity against Israel, perhaps they are deliberately trying to prevent a peaceful process of negotiation to resolve the conflict.
Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University and author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under attack by the International Community.