It is widely believed that organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), along with wealthy individuals such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, are the forces behind the unrelenting US support for Israel.
Those groups and individuals do have tremendous influence over and connections to US policymakers: AIPAC’s annual conference attracts hundreds of members of Congress and senior officials from both parties and Adelson donated tens of millions of dollars to the campaigns of both Mitt Romney and Donald Trump as a reward for their pro-Israel positions.
Many of Washington’s most influential think-tanks — the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute — are dominated by scholars sympathetic to Israel.
For several decades, however, the deepest vein of support for Israel in the United States has derived from Christian Zionist organisations. While AIPAC and other so-called establishment organisations delivered millions of dollars in campaign contributions to pro-Israel politicians, the Christian Zionists offered something even more important: tens of millions of votes.
Stephen Sizer, an Anglican minister and author of “Zion’s Christian Soldiers?,” defines Christian Zionists as those who “believe it is their biblical responsibility to support the nation of Israel.” Sizer spoke recently at the Palestine Centre, a small Washington research institute.
A spot check of Facebook is revealing: AIPAC’s Facebook site has 169,000 friends while Christians United for Israel, just one of many like-minded groups, has 1.7 million.
The theology of Christian Zionism is only tenuously connected to the Bible. Adherents claim Christ will return only when the world’s Jews are in Israel but that Jews must then be converted to Christianity. Islam is regarded as a hostile religion and all Arabs — Christian or Muslim — are impediments to the return of the Jews to their homeland. Violence is acceptable if carried out in the name of biblical prophecy. In fact, an apocalyptic battle in the Middle East is to be longed for because God will intervene on behalf of Israel.
Sizer said that in its most extreme form, Christian Zionism “propagates a worldview in which the Christian message is reduced to an ideology of empire, colonialism and militarism.”
Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin first saw the movement’s potential benefits to Israel, despite their Christ-centred theology. On his first visit to the United States after becoming prime minister in 1977, Begin met with the Reverend Jerry Falwell, the most prominent evangelical Christian leader in the United States at the time and a vocal Zionist. Through Falwell, Begin gained access to Ronald Reagan, who would win the presidency in 1980.
Because evangelical Christians are conservative on issues such as abortion, gay rights and feminism, they are inclined to align more with the Republican Party than with Democrats. (The one exception was Jimmy Carter, who himself was a proud “born-again” Christian.) This fact has contributed to the growing divide over Israel between Republicans and Democrats, with more Democrats adopting critical positions regarding Israeli policies.
There is a widening gap between Christian Zionists’ absolute support for Israel and the more nuanced views of American Jews. A 2015 poll by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland suggested that 64% of evangelical Christian respondents said a politician’s position on Israel matters “a lot.” A 2018 poll of American Jews by the AJC indicated that 41% said they “agreed strongly” that “caring about Israel is an important part of my Jewish identity.”
The AJC poll reported that 46% of American Jews expressed support for US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. In fact, the major political driver of Trump’s decision was a Christian Zionist group, the International Christian Embassy, whose Facebook page has twice as many friends as AIPAC’s and whose Jerusalem office occupies the former family home of the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said.
After Trump announced the embassy move, Jerry Falwell junior, who took over his late father’s church, called Trump the “evangelicals’ dream president [who is] reuniting Israel and America.” While Trump is making them happy, US Vice-President Mike Pence is the administration’s true believer, a devout Christian Zionist sitting a heartbeat (or impeachment) away from the presidency.
Mainstream Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church and traditional Protestant churches, have more balanced views of the Middle East. Churches for Middle East Peace, a Washington activist group representing many mainstream churches, actively lobbies Congress. However, there is one thing those churches do not bring to the table: votes.
Christian Zionism will remain a potent force in US politics for the foreseeable future, Sizer said: “The [Christian] Zionist lobby is more permanent than US presidents.”
Sizer offered one shred of hope: surveys indicate that younger Americans raised in evangelical households are more sceptical about the Christian Zionist agenda. Sizer credited social media and the abundance of information available to younger people; their ministers’ words are no longer the only voices they hear.
Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.