The Catastrophe in Palestine and Christian Zionism

Pro-Israel Rally in Los Angeles. (Photo: via Wikimedia Commons)

By Dr. M. Reza Behnam

No one should be shocked by the rightward drift of Israeli politics. The ultra-Orthodox extremist regime currently assembled in Tel Aviv is the end product of Israel’s systematic use of religion to uphold Jewish supremacy and legitimize its colonial rule over Palestine.

The question of whether Israel is a nation or a religious community, solely for the Jewish people, has been intrinsic to its identity and future. Like their ultra-Orthodox Israeli counterparts, Christian Zionists unequivocally answer that it is a state only for Jews.

With over 40 million adherents, Christian Zionists in the United States have been influential in determining the formation of America’s Israel-first policy.

Christian Zionism is the political outgrowth of dispensationalism—a movement that originated with 19th-century Anglican priest, John Nelson Darby. Darby’s theology reached a vast American audience with the 1909 publication and widespread distribution of the Scofield Reference Bible. By the 1970s, Christian Zionism had become synonymous with American evangelicalism.

Christian Zionists have been committed to the preservation and expansion of the Jewish state based on the literal interpretation of biblical auguries. In their eschatological drama, the Second Coming of Christ will be realized in Israel—only those who have accepted Jesus will be raptured into heaven, while all others will be destroyed.

Expedience and mutual exploitation explain why Israel’s leaders and supporters have been willing to ignore the destructive fate that evangelical prophecy holds for them, choosing instead to focus on the Christian Right’s electoral influence, extensive media resources and deep pockets.

American evangelicals and Israeli Zionists share the belief that the geography of the Promised Land is far larger than present-day Israel. Using the Bible to sell Israel’s claim to all of historic Palestine, Christian Zionists refer to God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:18: “To your descendants, I have given this land—from the river of Egypt to the great River Euphrates.” Taken literally, it would encompass Jordan, parts of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

The evangelical right believes that Jewish colonization and control over all of Palestine is required to fulfill their end-times prophecies. In pursuit of their biblical cartography, Christian Zionists, like their counterparts in the current Israeli cabinet, categorically support expansionist Jewish squatters—whom they call pioneers—and Israel’s aim of completely annexing the West Bank.

Christian Zionists also believe that God’s divine wrath awaits those who fail to defend the Jewish state based on Genesis 12:3 that “God blesses those who bless the Jews and curses those who curse the Jews.” Evangelical leaders frequently pro-claim that God’s blessings on America depend on its actions toward the Jewish state.

A 2015 Bloomberg poll indicated that over 67 percent of evangelicals believe that America should support Israel even if the interests of the two nations diverge. Surveys by the Brookings Institution, Gallup, Pew, and the Washington Post have yielded similar results. A comment by radio-TV evangelist, Kay Arthur, is representative: “If I had to choose between America and Israel, I would choose Israel.”

In the 1970s, a series of events brought Christian Zionism to the forefront of US mainstream politics, leading to the immense influence it continues to wield in Washington and throughout the country.

With the presidential election of Jimmy Carter, a “born-again” Christian, in 1976, the Israeli and US evangelical alliance intensified. Following Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister in 1977, a coalition of American evangelicals, the Jewish lobby, and political rights emerged. They relied on religious arguments to legitimize Israel’s confiscation of Palestinian land.

The nascent realities of US politics gave birth to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in 1979 and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition in 1989. Financial investment and lobbying on behalf of the Jewish state surged, and evangelical influence within the Republican Party swelled. In June 1981, for example, before bombing Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, Prime Minister Begin first called Falwell to secure evangelical support and then informed President Ronald Reagan.

The Christian Right and Republican Party had essentially become one following Reagan’s election in 1980. Believing in America’s divine mission to lead the world, Reagan depicted the Cold War as the struggle between good and evil, casting the former Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.”

The religious right’s influence over Middle East policy grew even greater with the 2000 presidential election of George W. Bush, who won 78 percent of the evangelical vote, and the attack of September 11, 2001.

President Bush’s “war on terror” and “axis of evil” rhetoric reflected his messianic worldview. After the invasion of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), Bush claimed to be on a mission from God.

Evangelical leaders extolled Bush’s preemptive war against Iraq, citing it as evidence of scripture being lived out in current events. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was cast as a common enemy of neoconservatives and Christian Zionists. For the Christian Right, Saddam represented an evil force in their end-times narrative.

In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump received 81 percent of the white evangelical vote. He employed faith-based rhetoric and divisive cultural issues to preserve their support. He continues to court the evangelical vote in pursuit of the presidency in 2024.

Israel and the religious right found powerful allies in the Trump White House.
Christian Zionists and pro-Israel zealots—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Vice President Mike Pence; National Security Adviser John Bolton and megachurch Texas televangelist John Hagee—were among Trump’s closest Mideast advisers.

Trump’s early initiatives were glaringly revelatory—the appointment of David Friedman, a hard-line promoter of Jewish “settlements,” as US ambassador to Israel and the controversial decision to move the American embassy to politically contested Al-Quds.

Christians United for Israel (CUFI), founded by John Hagee, is one of the largest, most powerful, and most well-financed pro-Israel organizations in the United States. With 11 million members, it has had a significant influence on Republican Party politics and in bolstering Washington’s already staunch support for Israel. With larger numbers of white evangelicals than American Jews, Israel has become increasingly reliant on the evangelical right as the bedrock of its support in the United States.

Hagee has a long history of anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and Muslim remarks. In sermons and writings, he claimed that the anti-Christ would be partially Jewish and that Adolf Hitler, whom he termed a “half-breed Jew,” was sent by God to persecute European Jews to drive them to Israel.

None of Hagee’s vitriol has discouraged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Vice President Mike Pence and former South Carolina governor/ U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, as well as other Republicans from addressing CUFI summits and seeking Hagee’s support. And it was no surprise that Haley—whose tenure at the United Nations was defined by her pro-Israel advocacy—asked Hagee to open her 2024 presidential campaign.

In 2006, as Israeli bombs ravaged Lebanon, Hagee famously remarked that American support for Israel was “God’s foreign policy.”

More than 200 different evangelical organizations in the United States and Canada are committed to Christian Zionism. For example, the lobbying group Alliance for Israel Advocacy, comprised of Jews who have converted to Christianity, has floated legislation in Congress that would pay Palestinians to permanently move to other countries. Human rights groups have condemned the legislation as a strategy to ultimately annex all of the West Bank and as a “US-funded ethnic cleansing plan in Palestine.”

Alliance Executive Director, Paul Liberman, has described Palestinians as “squatters,” and insists that they must leave the land they have lived on for centuries. Asserting that the “Bible is the deed to the land of Israel that God gave the Jewish people,” his organization is bent on changing the demography of the West Bank and has garnered support from evangelical leaders, members of Congress, and Israeli officials.

The Christian Right has been successful in pressuring members of Congress to support Israel, whose attendance at AIPAC and Christian evangelical events has become almost mandatory. Newly elected members routinely participate in lavishly financed AIPAC-sponsored trips to Israel, designed to give them a biased Likud view of the region.

Presidential hopefuls, cognizant of the political influence of religious blocs, eager-ly make the requisite trek to Israel to present their pro-Israel credentials to the Zionist regime. Former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, are among the 2024 hopefuls who have already done so.

Aware of tourism’s potential for indoctrination, the Israeli regime, along with its American evangelical allies, has promoted religious tourism. The industry, message, and agenda of its solidarity tours and pilgrimages are strictly controlled. While readily exploiting Palestinian historical sites, Israel makes sure that Western tour groups are kept away from Palestinians or their Christian community and from the harsh realities of Israel’s military rule.

The $500 million Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. is one example of the religious rights’ goal of strengthening its ideology in the United States. Inspired and financed by the conservative Christian family-run company, Hobby Lobby, the museum is one of the largest in the nation’s capital. Just three blocks away, it emphasizes the Old Testament as integral to American life and appears intended to leverage policymakers. Additionally, the museum foundation finances programs which, like the Jewish “birthright” trips offered to young Jews, takes Christian youth on tours to Israel.

By defining Palestine-Israel in explicitly mythical Bible stories, the religious right has abetted Israel’s racist and oppressive policies. The Palestinian tragedy that has resulted is completely excluded from Christian Zionist discourse and understanding.

Religion has played a significant role in the political cultures of the United States and Israel. For decades, the evangelical right has been working to “restore” their idea of Christianity in the United States. And in Israel, conservative religious extremists have successfully commandeered the country’s regime, finally erasing Israel’s democratic facade.

– Dr. M. Reza Behnam is a political scientist specializing in the history, politics and governments of the Middle East. He contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
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