The Washington Post | Long, uneasy love affair of Israel and U.S. evangelicals may have peaked

For many, the beaming smiles on both sides during Vice President Pence’s visit to Jerusalem this past week embodied the love affair between American evangelicals and Israel.

The Trump administration’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent visit of the evangelical vice president to Israel mark the culmination of a long, complicated and sometimes uneasy alliance between Israeli leaders and Christian evangelicals that dates to before the establishment of the state.

But the high-water mark comes just as younger American evangelicals are growing less attached to Israel. Recent polls have sparked anxiety among Israeli officials and Christian Zionist groups, which are trying to reverse the decline.

Faced with the dip in support, Israel is increasingly looking to evangelical communities in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere to build international support. Guatemala, where President Jimmy Morales is an avowed evangelical, was the first country to follow suit after the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem.

“I find it funny because it took me 20 or 25 years to get the Jewish community to see the benefits of working with the evangelical community, and now [Jews] are so concerned with the diminishing commitment they have to Israel,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, an American Israeli who played a key role in fostering the relationship between American evangelicals and Israel.

Vice President Mike Pence bowed his head in prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site for Jewish prayers, on Jan. 23.

Pence’s speech to the Knesset last week, deeply steeped in biblical references, was a testament to the spiritually rooted support for Israel in President Trump’s White House. Pence himself has said he is “an evangelical Catholic.”

America stands with Israel, he told the lawmakers, because it supports good over evil, and he described the Jewish state as Abraham’s “promised land,” which, as it grows, reaches closer to heaven.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party in Israel’s ruling coalition, said the Israeli right is “very happy” with the relationship with U.S. evangelicals, explaining that evangelical influence on the White House has created an “era of opportunity” for Israel.

“We need to use the opportunity to the best of Israel’s national interests and security,” he said.

In the eyes of most Palestinians, however, the influence of evangelicalism on the White House has been disastrous for their relations with the United States. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, slammed the “messianic discourse” of Pence during his visit.

The idea of a Palestinian state conflicts with the belief of some evangelicals that the entire territory — from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, including the West Bank — was promised by God to the Jewish people.

And those voices are becoming louder. Evangelical lobbying groups such as Christians United for Israel, advocating views that align more tightly with the Israeli right, now rival the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in their influence on behalf of Israel. While AIPAC backs a two-state solution, CUFI does not.

To welcome Pence, Mike Evans, an American Christian Zionist, arranged to display 110 congratulatory billboards around Jerusalem. After a long romance, he said, the visit was like a formal engagement between evangelicals and Israel.

“When the friendship began there was suspicion,” he said, adding that it was justified given the “bloodstained” history of Christianity. “Then there was a little bit of a courtship. But the time has come.”

During a recent interview in an office suite above the Friends of Zion Museum, which he founded to highlight Christian support for Israel, Evans said that the White House decision on Jerusalem “100 percent happened because of the evangelicals. No question.”

Evans met with Trump in the Oval Office two days after the decision and personally presented him with a “Friends of Zion” award — a silver menorah.

Israel’s ties to evangelicals date to before the state was established, when British evangelical leader William Hechler worked with Theodor Herzl — known as the father of Zionism — to advocate for a Jewish homeland.

But it has been a conflicted relationship.

Over the past half-century, many American evangelicals came to support Israel through an end-of-days theology. The idea — popularized in the 1970 book “The Late Great Planet Earth,” which later became a movie with Orson Welles, and the Left Behind series, which began in the 1990s — is that the establishment of Israel was part of a preordained divine plan preparing for the return of the Messiah.

Many Jews, for their part, have long viewed the missionary work of evangelicals and their messianic, prophetic beliefs with suspicion. Christian proselytizing, although allowed in Israel, is frowned upon by many Israelis, and Messianic Jews, who believe in Jesus, are largely shunned.

Eckstein says his efforts to foster a closer relationship and raise evangelical money for Israel came under attack for many years. Eventually, however, evangelicals became “kosher,” he said.

“Jews started to realize that they were friends of Israel, and then the Jewish community by and large became very myopic in their thinking,” he added. “They are good for Israel, they are giving them money for their projects. . . . For a lot of Jews it was, let’s call it utilitarian.”

Eckstein says his organization, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, has become the largest philanthropy in Israel. The group has pulled in $1.5 billion in donations from the United States since it was founded in the 1980s, spending the money primarily on social programs and helping Jews around the world to immigrate to Israel. The supporters are largely ordinary Americans, with the average donation $76.

Still, some ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups in Israel refuse to take the money.

The situation for Israel’s own tiny evangelical population illustrates the paradox of the Israeli relationship with evangelicals.

Pastor Steven Khoury, whose Holy Land Missions has six affiliated churches, said Israel has not officially recognized the evangelical church, even though its mission’s “calling” is toward Arabs rather than Jews. The evangelical church does not qualify for tax benefits given to religious institutions and lacks “legitimacy,” he said.

Among American evangelicals, the views toward Israel are also not monolithic.

Johnnie Moore, a pastor and marketing executive who serves as unofficial spokesman for Trump’s evangelical advisory board, said evangelicals are more sophisticated about the Middle East than they are given credit for.

In the case of evangelical leaders who urged the White House to recognize Jerusalem, he said, “It’s not like they feel: ‘The Trump administration should make this decision because the Bible says it.’ But they do think if they do this, [America] will be blessed.”

The roots of evangelical views on Israel run deep, he said. “Outside of the U.S., of all countries, evangelicals probably have the closest relationship with Israelis and the state of Israel. If an evangelical goes to one country, it’s probably Israel. Secondly, the shared experience of persecution has been at the heart of that.”

While white evangelicals, who make up three-quarters of American evangelicals, overwhelmingly back Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, polls show that younger ones are less attached to Israel.

A poll released last month by the evangelical firm LifeWay Research asked American evangelicals about their overall perception of Israel. Among people over 65, 76 percent said it was positive, compared with 58 percent among those ages 18 to 34. About 30 percent of the people in the younger group said they were “not sure,” nearly double the figure for the older group.

Falling support among U.S. evangelicals younger than 30 “ought to keep every Israeli awake at night,” said Yoav Fromer, who teaches politics at Tel Aviv University. Writing last week in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest newspaper, he said: “Don’t let the vice president’s immaculate hair and white smile blind you: Pence is the old America. The more one looks at the breakdown of that support for Israel, the more one sees a troubling trend.”

Fromer added, “Even if Trump is prepared to tolerate Israel’s continued control of the Palestinians — his successors are unlikely to follow suit.”

With polls showing younger evangelicals increasingly exploring the Palestinian perspective, more evangelical groups have popped up in the past few years to win over those young hearts and minds.

The Hobby Lobby-backed Museum of the Bible Foundation in Washington runs a program called Passages, which — like the Jewish “Birthright” — takes young Christians to the Holy Land.

Aware that support among American evangelicals may be peaking, Israel is looking for evangelical backing elsewhere, in countries where these communities are on the rise.

“It’s been an important element in our diplomacy for some years,” said Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry. “We do work with them on a very, very close basis. It’s something that’s been going on for some years, but those evangelical movements are becoming increasingly big.”

Countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia all have rapidly expanding evangelical communities.

“Now, you have a situation where all the stars are aligned beautifully,” Eckstein said. “You have evangelicals in the White House, you have Trump who is susceptible to their influence and their constituency, you have a right-wing prime minister in government in Israel, and everything is good.”

“But,” he said, “that can change tomorrow, literally, in both cases. Israel and America, that whole thing, so it’s important to have eggs in all the baskets.”

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