The Antisemitic Face of Israel’s Evangelical Allies

Evangelical Zionists want Jews to move to Palestine to set the stage for the divine requital of Armageddon. This hasn’t stopped Israel from sealing alliances with even nakedly antisemitic evangelicals, so long as they support the dispossession of Palestinians.

US evangelical pastor John Hagee addresses followers of the Christians United for Israel movement in downtown Jerusalem, 2008. (GALI TIBBON/AFP via Getty Images)

That the Israeli state has comfortable relationships with known antisemites is hardly news. If Donald Trump is an arch-Zionist, those who marched on Capitol Hill in his support wore clothing that professed the Holocaust insufficient. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s ties to the German far right and his historical revisionism terming the Nazis “leftists” have proven no impediment to his boosting bilateral ties with Israel. Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán has institutionalized Holocaust revisionism and is relentless in criticism of Jewish financier George Soros as a sort of global puppet master. But the Hungarian-Israeli relationship is tight.

Each such relationship represents a political calculation on the part of Israeli authorities. Underlying each partnership is the assumption, or wager, that such potential partners are either more Islamophobic than they are antisemitic (often true), or above all committed to their own nationalism (also mostly true), such that any whiff of antisemitism is overridden by a deeper commitment to the principle that a state can do whatever it wants inside the territory it controls. By either road — Islamophobic or isolationist — Israeli decision-makers are willing to excuse a little antisemitism for the certainty of silence or support in Israel’s incessant abuses against Palestinians.

However, the panoply of right-wing, conservative, and antisemitic Israeli allies also features one grouping less avowedly political than religious: evangelical Christians, who number some 90 million in the United States alone. Insofar as their inspiration is based in theology rather than hard realpolitik, it is also less rational, subject as it is to supposedly divine influences and, crucially, how their scriptures are interpreted down on earth.

The basis of the Israeli-evangelical relationship — and so, too, evangelical support for using Israelis to dispossess Palestinians — is a belief that God gave Palestine to the Jews, and so Jews should be in Palestine. So far, so simple. But the “yikes” moment of the Israeli-evangelical love-in is that the Jews being in Palestine is seen as precondition for an Armageddon to rain down on earth, exterminating Jews and other non-converts to evangelism while bringing the return of Christ in the apocalyptic Second Coming found in Revelation, the final book of the Bible.

Jewish Zionists seem unconcerned by this proposition, which naturally doesn’t make it into the Torah, or Old Testament. More secular Zionists seem confident such otherworldly powers do not in fact exist to destroy the world and Israel, and — alternatively — that the most madcap evangelicals can be kept out of the Pentagon.

Israel has deliberately sought out such ties. In 2017, the Israeli government initiated an annual Christian Media Summit to enhance communications with Christian figures, including far-right preachers. In a 2019 state visit to Brazil, then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu heaped praise on both Brazilian evangelicals and the Bolsonaro government, saying, “We have no better friends in the world than the Evangelical community.”

If the theological ideas seem tenuous, the more material ones do not: the evangelical group the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews commands a billion-dollar war chest it spends on Zionist lobbying and also propagandistic, military-focused policies such as payments to Israeli army soldiers.

Warning Signs

But this certitude in Jewish safety from and with right-wing US Christians seems ill-judged and ahistorical. It is a faith out of keeping with the historical record of actually occurring antisemitism, rather than the fabricated allegations now habitually and blanketly used to shut down defenses of Palestinian rights.

Many early Zionists were motivated by a shock that the Dreyfus affair — in which a French-Jewish army officer was wrongly accused of treason, cast out of the military, and sent to a penal colony — was possible in supposedly enlightened France. One of the tragedies of Nazism in Europe is that so many Jews rightly felt a European belonging that should have made the Holocaust impossible. Some internalized these brutal lessons in the form of Zionism and the violent means used to carve out a state in Palestine. Others turned instead to a movement of global justice and rights — the only thing that keeps us all safe.

Even without these historic examples of the Jewish community being betrayed by Christian-dominated establishments that had once seemed dependable, it is dubious whether the sensible bets should right now be placed on the stability of Western states, and particularly the US political right.

There are already signs that the warm relationship between Zionists and evangelicals is not durable and, indeed, beginning to fray. Trump, an evangelical president in all but name, recently fumed, “Fuck him” at Netanyahu for acknowledging Joe Biden’s election win. Given that Trump self-identifies as having “given” the Israeli project the Golan Heights (from Syria) and East Jerusalem (from Palestine), he saw this as an ungrateful personal affront.

Anger and vitriolic theories of Jewish control over the United States are also apparent inside the churches, where old theories about Jewish influence in politics collide with religious views about the crucifixion of Jesus and theories of Trump as a “King of Israel.” After the most recent Israeli elections, self-described Christian Zionist and US evangelical leader Mike Evans came to the defense of the corruption-addled and disgraced Netanyahu. Evans said Israelis and their new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, were “shitting on the face” of US evangelicals for apparently lacking sufficient commitment to Zionism (despite Bennett having approved murder as a means of terrorizing Palestinians).

You don’t have to be either Jewish or a historian to know that Christian extremists accusing Jews of disloyalty has never been good news. There is also something precarious about Israel as a purportedly Jewish state founded on the support of the US Christian right, indeed in the perilous guise of secondary partner in a separate religiously motivated cause. Nor have evangelicals and Zionists been beyond falling out within Israeli borders. An evangelical TV station was threatened with closure for not admitting that its real aim was proselytizing the conversion of Jews to Christianity.

There is the issue, too, of how scripture is interpreted, and what constitutes an Armageddon. As in all religions, scripture comes replete with differing interpretations along a spectrum of literal to figurative. It was, after all, the Israeli army occupying East Jerusalem in 1967 that accelerated evangelical ecstasy at the idea of the Jews reclaiming Palestine. Those Evangelicals were happy to let men and women and militaries do what many religionists (including fiercely anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews) felt should be acts of God. Where is the certainty that evangelicals would remain committed to leaving God to rain down hellfire on West Asia and the world rather than settle for using the world’s biggest military?

One particular channel for escalation relates to perhaps the keenest source of evangelical fervor since the 1967 war: fulfillment of a biblical prophecy in which the Jews in Jerusalem rebuild the Third Temple beside the Wailing Wall on Temple Mount. This undertaking would, however, require the destruction of the magnificent Dome of the Rock mosque, and probably the adjacent and even more revered al-Aqsa Mosque, so that there is a total certainty of major war if the Israeli regime ever committed or allowed the commitment of such acts. Even the Israeli security apparatus recognizes the severe threat to its stability posed by far-right Jewish terror groups that have long sought to bring about this destruction. When a 1984 plot by terrorists calling themselves Jewish Underground was foiled at the last minute, before the explosion of five buses full of Palestinians, subsequent interrogations revealed advanced plans to blow up the Dome of the Rock. The same ambition is held by those Jewish supremacists who — though living openly in illegal West Bank settlements — remain the prime suspects in the assassination in California of Lebanese American anti-racist activist Alex Odeh. Though there is no direct connection between these Jewish terror organizations and evangelicals, it is an implicit risk that the goals of extreme views and figures in both camps so align.

There is considerable anxiety and even fury from many in the Jewish community at the company that Israel has come to keep in the name of defending Jews. The culture of media censorship regarding Palestine, and the related industry of false claims of antisemitism, has suffocated the free speech that would also allow critical Jews and other consistent anti-racists to warn of the dangers of the false or self-serving friends that Zionism has accumulated while claiming to speak on Jews’ behalf.

This order of events has left threat analysis weakened. It has also alienated those who aim to stand in solidarity with both Jews against antisemitism and Palestinians against Zionism, while elevating antisemites — including many evangelicals — in solidarity with Israel. The Zionist lie that Muslims and Arabs are naturally hostile to Jews rather than naturally supportive of Palestinians has contaminated mainstream thought, convenient as such ideas are to culturally Christian establishments that have always been the world’s fiercest perpetrators of antisemitism.

Nation-State Antisemitism

The Zionist argument — understandable even if it does not excuse Israeli abuses upon Palestinians — is often that, in the epoch of the nation-state, it was antisemitic to deny one to the Jews. The corollary of this holds that in an era of nation-states and globalized war, the purest manifestation of antisemitism would be to attack the Israeli state in Palestine, and not — as neighboring Arab states attempted — to liberate Palestinians but merely because it is the purported Jewish state.

For decades, both Jewish and non-Jewish Zionists have seized upon the most tenuous interpretations of antisemitism to gag the struggle for Palestinian rights. But in so doing, many have risked making the vital language of opposition to antisemitism near meaningless, meanwhile remaining tight-lipped on the antisemitism of an ascendant Christian conservatism. These errors of morality and judgment have been compounded (as in Britain’s Labour Party) by an antisemitic excommunication of those Jews who, faced with the global far-right resurgence, have sought to create common cause in the struggles against Islamophobia, for black lives, and against Zionist brutality.

There are also legitimate grounds for why some evangelicals are growing more critical of Israel. Younger church members are more aware of abuses in Palestine and do not accept so readily their churches’ staunch support for Israel. There is growing resentment among Palestinian, West Asian, and Arab Christians that US Christendom has turned so abusive toward the millions of Palestinian Christians who suffer from Israeli apartheid and have also seen their churches come under increasing attack from Jewish terrorism. There is also a risk that resentment at billions of US dollars going to Israel, justifiably criticized on its own terms, becomes fused with a religious antisemitism directed at Jews.

Ultimately, as the Trump era so clearly showed, the evangelical churches are decentralized, powerful, hard to control, and prone toward a cocktail of extremism and whatever brings in financial contributions to their congregations. At least one pastor — if not giving up on it — has described the church as “broken”.

For a time, the evangelical vogue has been to cheer on the extremism of Jewish Zionism in Palestine at any cost. But the mixture of fluid religious interpretation, popular appeal, and a history of steep antisemitism saying Jews killed Jesus bears a dangerous extremism of its own. Evangelicals should be seen as a dangerous and unequal choice of friend, however temporarily useful, for an already stretched Israeli project in Palestine.