By Bev Goldman
Evangelical Christians make up the biggest pro-Israel bloc in the US; and support for Israel is stronger among American evangelicals than it is even among American Jews.
Nevertheless, maמy Jews, following millennia of persecution, inevitably view the present through the lens of the traumatic past.
Evangelism refers to “the preaching of the Gospel. It comes from the same Greek word for gospel (euangelion) and means, literally, ‘gospeling’ or spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” It is also referred to as “a spiritual journey of formation and transformation”; “telling the good news, being the good news, and doing the good news”; and “sharing Christian hope and hospitality.”
Today the global evangelical population numbers somewhere around 300 million people scattered across every continent. While many live in developing countries, the United States remains the movement’s traditional centre where it is particularly strong and powerful and has been responsible over the years for policy changes and new directions implemented and taken by the various governments. Numerous polls conducted, including one by the very influential Pew Research Centre, confirm that 82% of white evangelicals, as opposed to the less than half as many Jewish or Catholic Americans holding the same view, think God gave Israel to the Jewish people. Evangelical Christians make up the biggest pro-Israel bloc in the US; and support for Israel is stronger among American evangelicals than it is even among American Jews.
Professor David Gushee, lecturer in Christian ethics at Atlanta’s Mercer University, has commented frequently on how remarkably pro-Israel evangelicals have been, both theologically and in terms of the modern State of Israel. He has also pointed out the commitment to Israel among evangelicals, which he said is evident in the growing number of evangelical leaders who lead trips to Israel, as well as by the attention being given to Jewish history in evangelical circles.
Pastor John Hagee, founder and national chairman of Christians United for Israel, heads the massive Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and founded Christians United for Israel a decade ago. It steadily became one of the strongest pro-Israel evangelical groups in the country, and the most recent census showed that it had more than three million members and 14 regional directors to help steer its operations across the USA.
Much of the basis of the evangelical perspective is theological, rooted in the belief that “God makes good on His promises … It looks back to the idea that God has made certain commitments to His people — to the people through whom the gospel originally came — and He’s not abandoning them, ultimately. And so there’s a hope that drives this belief that Israel deserves to be supported.”
A Pew study carried out in 2013 found that 29% of Christians, 46% of white evangelicals, and 19% of black Protestants thought that America was not supportive enough of Israel; while 41% of Christians, 31% of white evangelicals, and 48% of black Protestants felt the level of support was just right. Two years later, in 2015, another Pew poll was carried out with quite different results. They showed that while 6 percent of white American evangelicals thought the US was too supportive of Israel, 55 percent decried what they called the inadequate level of support given to Israel by their country as against the 36 percent who felt it was sufficient. At the same time, more than 80 percent of evangelical pastors overwhelmingly agree that Christians should support Israel.
“Jesus Was Jewish”
The World Council of Independent Christian Churches, one of the larger evangelical movements in the USA, with 15 direct and 8 indirect ministries situated around the world, has produced a series of television programs called Focus on Israel, dedicated to “educating Christians about their Biblical responsibility to the Jewish people.” Laurie Cardoza-Moore, a deacon in the WCICC, emphasises how important a special bond with Jews is for theological and even scriptural reasons. “God had a plan for mankind, and Israel was to be that example of how to live,” she says. “And that’s why the Torah was given to them. And unfortunately, Christianity has moved away from that Hebraic understanding, that Hebraic teaching …The Jewish people are our brethren in the faith. And Jesus, of course, was Jewish.”
Ron Csillag, writing on the Canadian Jewish News (CJN) website, asked in his article if evangelical support for Israel had a dark side. He wrote, “Christians who love Israel: is it good for the Jews? While many Jews whole-heartedly embrace Christian Zionism – after all, Israel needs friends – others suspect that behind it lurks a theology that loves Jews but hates Judaism. Millions of evangelical Christians – often referred to as “born again” and who believe the Bible is inerrant – have reasons for supporting Israel, whether because it’s biblically mandated or because they, like Israel’s current leadership, are conservative and feel a political kinship. Or, because they see it as a way of atoning for past mistreatment of Jews. Perhaps it’s for all of those reasons.”
While Christian Zionism, he added, has helped to shape the strong support for Israel emanating from the USA, he ascribed to other Christian Zionists what might be called a darker agenda: their belief that universal redemption and the return of the Christian messiah can happen only when all the Jews have been gathered in their homeland, “where they will finally give up their obsolete and erroneous beliefs and accept Jesus Christ as their saviour.”
This apart, there is a whole host of reasons, far too many to detail here, for why Christians support Israel. Politics is one of them. Evangelicals “tend to be conservative politically,” says Rabbi Michael Skobac, director of education and counselling for Jews for Judaism Canada, observed. “They see Israel as [being] at the front lines of fighting terrorism.” For other Christians, support for Israel “is an expression of remorse for past anti-Semitism and what they see as the failure of churches to stand up for Jews during the Holocaust.” And for almost 73% of world evangelical leaders, the real basis for most Christian Zionism, put simply, is the belief in the truth of God’s eternal covenant with the nation of Israel.
The Grand Plan?
But not all evangelicals do, in fact, support Israel. Robert Nicholson, himself a staunch Christian but with strong ties to various Jewish communities, writes, “A growing minority inside the evangelical world views the Jewish state as at best tolerable and at worst positively immoral, a country that, instead of being supported on biblical grounds, should be opposed on those same grounds.”
Discussing the many different evangelical ‘sects’ and their pro- or anti-Israel stances, Nicholson notes that evangelicals believe God chose the biblical people of Israel “as His vehicle for world redemption, an earthly agent through whom He would accomplish his grand plan for history. Why did God choose Israel? Not because of any innate virtue or genius they may have possessed, but because He had made a covenant with their patriarch, Abraham, based on the latter’s demonstrated faith and devotion.”
Most evangelicals, he continued, “also believe that the ingathering of the Jews is the first stage in the second coming: the moment when Jesus will return to earth not as a humble servant but as a conquering king to establish his righteous rule in Jerusalem and restore the nation of Israel to its favoured place for a millennium.”
The growth and spread of evangelism, even considering their donation of millions of much-appreciated dollars to worthy causes in Israel, has given rise to numerous questions about its authenticity vis-à-vis the Jewish people. Questions asked include, “Can evangelicals be trusted? Are they not on a mission to convert Jews to Christianity? Is their professed love for and dedication to Israel not merely a cover for their ultimate goal, that of turning Jews into disciples of Jesus Christ?”
The suspicion about evangelical motives for loving Israel has many of its roots in the fact that people bearing the name of Christ had spent centuries demonizing the Jewish people and shedding Jewish blood. Memories of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the innumerable pogroms and persecutions have not dimmed in the Jewish world; and thousands still view the present through the lens of the traumatic past. Jewish concerns also focus on evangelical proselytizing or adherence to the belief that the Christian faith should replace Judaism; and there are those who see evangelicals as fundamentalist and right-wing. According to Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, founder of the group Jews for Judaism, the ‘hidden agenda’ of the Christian Zionists is proselytising. In one of his articles, he wrote, “There is irrefutable evidence that many evangelicals who support Israel have implemented and new ‘soft-sell’ approach to proselytising Jews for conversion.”
Yet Rabbi Pini Dunner, senior rabbi at Yeshiva High School for Boys in Beverly Hills, California, sees it differently. Accompanying a delegation of 30 young pastors to Israel on their first visit, he said, “The overwhelming miracle of Christian-Jewish brotherhood in the wake of the creation of the state of Israel is something that is under-recognized and under-appreciated, particularly of evangelicals, whose love for Israel is breath-taking and illuminating.”
So, there we have it – a conundrum, a dilemma on whose horns sit the various Jewish groups, those in and outside of Israel, the orthodox and the secular, the young and the older, who see the evangelicals from different perspectives. Their remarkable generosity to Israel is well documented, and those I am privileged to know personally here in South Africa are wonderful and genuine people who love Israel unconditionally. Perhaps that’s the attitude everyone should adopt – after all, Israel needs all the friends she can get, and who else gives so much with no expectation of reward?
Bev worked for many years in education and journalism, and she holds a master’s degree in Feminist Literature. Prior to joining the SA Zionist Federation where she dealt with media and education for 12 years, she was the editor of the ‘Who’s Who’ of Southern Africa; a member of WordWize which taught English language skills to Russian and Polish immigrants in South Africa; an occasional lecturer in English at RAU (now the University of Johannesburg); and Director of Educational Programmes at Allenby In-Home Studies. Currently she runs the Media Team Israel for the SA Zionist Federation; she sits on the Board of Governors of the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre (RCHCC); she is the National Vice-President of the Union of Jewish Women South Africa; she is an executive member of the International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW); and she edits and proofs Masters and PhD dissertations.
Feature picture credit: Moti Milrod