American Evangelicals: Smack in the Middle of the Arab-Israel Question
By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
American evangelicals have been captivated by the Trump administration, first because of Trump’s support of their pro-life sympathies and, second, their mutual agreement on a pro-Israeli stance in opposition to Palestinian interests. The evangelical control of 25% of the national electorate is a critical part of Trump’s base. The Trump-evangelical combined interest in allowing Israel more and more control over Palestinian land and rights is contrary to most former U.S. policies, which have generally supported a two-state solution, meaning the existence of the Israeli state and that of a sovereign, independent state for the Palestinians.
American Evangelical Support of Israel
Evangelism was founded by Martin Luther, in 16th century Germany. Part of the so-called Reformation, evangelical Christianity underscored their faith in Jesus Christ based exclusively on scripture. The faith was readily adopted in the U.S. and now its adherents comprise an important part of President Trump’s political base.
American Christians in general support Israel’s presence as a religious state. Americans of whatever religious background accept the establishment of the state of Israel as partial compensation for the egregious treatment of Jews by Hitler and others during World War II. Specifically, the emotional aftermath of the genocide of around 6,000,000 Jews and the quest of Zionists (supporters of a religious state for the Jewish peoples) for a homeland, clinched the deal for such a home where Jews would be able to determine their own future.
After searching for a Jewish homeland in several places around the world, including Haiti in the Caribbean and Uganda in central Africa, the Zionists landed on what was called Palestine. The rationale for this space in the middle of Arab lands was that this was where Judaism had been founded millennia ago. Jews had resided in this space called Palestine from at least the 12th century BCE (before the Christian era). The only problem with this solution was that a people, known collectively as the Palestinians, who are Arabs, had been living in that same space for centuries.
Christian evangelicals have felt an affinity for the founding state of Israel in religious terms—namely because of the belief that when the ‘Second Coming’ occurs, Jesus Christ will reveal his presence in no other place than Jerusalem. According to this theology, Israel, as a newfound state, accorded with the biblical prophecy that once the Jews returned to their homeland, it was an easy next step for this second coming of Jesus.
The link between American evangelical and U.S. policy towards Israel and the Palestinians has recently solidified. With President Trump’s recent decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—thus recognizing the latter as the capital of Israel—the fate of evangelicals has become sealed with Trump’s political agenda of drawing white Christians into his orbit. Since Jerusalem is also beloved by Arab Muslims as critical to their Islamic beliefs, they have felt cheated by this one-sided decision by the U.S.
The solidity of the American evangelicals and the State of Israel is aptly described, in a recent Foreign Policy article:
…this political marriage between American Evangelicals and Israelis represents a cynical form of mutual exploitation. Evangelicals support Israel to hasten the apocalypse, while Israelis (who obviously don’t believe Christian eschatology) are happy to humor the Evangelical community and milk that support for tourist and political power.
American Evangelicals and Islamophobia
Despite the reality of U.S. strength as the largest military superpower and economic power that is expansive, Trump has led the country to believe that its strength is waning. He also believes that cooperation with other countries should only be self-serving to the U.S. This has led some Americans to come to fear people and ideas they don’t understand or dislike. Such fear is reinforced with president Trump’s Islamophobic, anti-Islamic policies. Some of the media also support the thinking that Islam and terrorism are the same, without any proof. Trump’s “Birther” view that President Obama was a Muslim, as if it was a crime and thus disqualifying, only fed the anti-Muslim fury in the country.
Trump is supported in his Islamophobia by some pastors preaching from the proverbial pulpit. Preachers have promoted disdain of Muslims, suggesting that the Quran dictates that Muslims “should want to kill Christians and Jews.” Trump has furthered this xenophobia through his admonitions that conservative white Protestants are declining in their influence and power. He supports those Christians in their extreme animosity towards Muslims. Such Christians represent a critical part of Trump’s base. Part of their anti-Islamic initiative has been to donate millions of dollars to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Even the U.S. ambassador to Israel, along with the Kushner family, are donors to such settlements. Furthermore, it is self-evident that many evangelicals oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state in the Israeli occupied zone.
Arab Muslim response to Islamophobia: Wooing Christians into their Orbit
Strange as it may seem, American Protestant evangelicals have responded to Arab and other Muslim countries’ appeals to improve their standing among the U.S. Christian right. Thus have groups of evangelicals been invited to and accepted invitations from countries such as Egypt, Jordan, UAE, and Saudi Arabia and non-Arab Muslims in Azerbaijan. Apparently, this is not just about getting access to the U.S. President. These countries also want to improve their standing among American Christians.
One meeting, in particular, is of interest. A dozen American evangelicals met with Egyptian President al-Sissi. This was a first for both sides. The Americans were part of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board. In that meeting, al-Sissi used the opportunity to promote the continuation of former-president Anwar al-Sadat’s initiative to improve the Israeli-Egyptian relationship dating to the late 1970s. Al-Sissi had another agenda, which was to advance the idea of Israeli-Palestinian peace—to open the opportunity for a region-wide peace dialogue between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.
Trump Administration Uses Evangelicals in Tipping the Scales in favor of Israel—Leaving the Palestinians to Hang out to Dry
Pro-Israeli evangelicals are especially favored by the Trump administration. They represent about 25.4% of the electorate (according to a Pew survey) and are clearly part of the President’s base. Vice President Pence, an evangelical himself, seems to support the kind of apocalyptic rhetoric used by some of the extreme pro-Israeli evangelical groups. In a speech to one such group, Pence made clear his point of view: “To look at Israel is to see that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob keeps his promises. Like all of you, my passion for Israel springs from my Christian faith.” This perspective somehow assumes that Israel’s preeminence, versus the debased perception of Palestinians, is in ‘God’s plan.’ Most evangelicals agree that the rebirth of Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.”
By a large margin, American evangelicals agree that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people exclusively, while American Jews in large numbers do not share that view. To the contrary, many American Jews see the Palestinians as having a legitimate stake in the outcome of a solution to the overriding issue of one-state (Israel) or two states (Palestine and Israel). Millennials of the evangelical persuasion are more tolerant than their elders of a two-state solution—or at least of more tolerance towards Palestinians. They tend to rely more on the New Testament of the Bible for their more peaceable view of the issue, in contrast to the older generation, which relies more on the fire-and-brimstone view of the Old Testament.
What’s next for the Evangelicals in the Israeli-Palestine Context?
Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor have been named chief advisor on the Arab-Israeli issue, namely the Israel-Palestine question. So far the results of his endeavor have been the designation by the U.S. of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital—as noted earlier, a highly contested move due to the critical importance of Jerusalem to the Arabs. Second, the U.S. “approved” the annexation of the occupied Golan Heights, part of Syria, as an official part of Israel. Third, is Kushner’s attempt to woo the Palestinians to “talk peace” with the Israelis at a “two-day economic workshop.” This plan suggests that money will pre-empt Palestinian political interests. Like much of this administration’s “strategy” for Israel and Palestine, this plan is doomed to fail.
(References: “Real Reasons American Evangelicals Support Israel,” David French, National Review, March 22, 2019; “Faith in ancient promises, wonder at modern miracles, and a deep conviction that evil forces must not prevail against the Middle East’s most vibrant democracy,” Amr Awad, September 16, 2018; “America’s Islamophobia is forged at the pulpit,” Christopher Stroop, Foreign Policy, March 26, 2019; Amir Tibon, Haaretz, March 5, 2019; “Meet the Group Trying to Change Evangelical Minds about Israel,” Adam Wren, Politico Magazine, March 10, 2019.)
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.