Religious Right Rolls Out the Red Carpet for Netanyahu

About Cole Parke

The night before addressing a joint session of Congress—a controversial event that has garnered a great deal of attention from both the Left and the Right—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to an estimated crowd of 16,000 people at the annual policy conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) declaring, “For 2,000 years, my people, the Jewish people, were stateless, defenseless, voiceless… [T]oday, we are no longer silent; today, we have a voice. And tomorrow, as prime minister of the one and only Jewish state, I plan to use that voice.”

With U.S. foreign aid to Israel surpassing $3 billion last year (more aid than any other country in the world receives), it should be obvious that many of the key players invested in protecting and expanding Israel’s statehood are here in the United States. What might be surprising is that the majority of pro-Israel Americans aren’t Jewish. In fact, many of them could even be described as anti-Jewish.

Christian Zionism flags

A Pew Research Center study published in October 2013 revealed that the Christian Zionist perspective has especially widespread acceptance among American evangelicals, with roughly 82% of White evangelicals subscribing to the belief that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. By contrast, only 40% of American Jews believe the same. How and why did this come to be?

AIPAC has long been seen as the primary voice for Israeli interests on Capitol Hill, but they are not alone. In 2006, John Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church—a megachurch based in San Antonio, Texas, founded Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which now claims to be the largest pro-Israel organization in the country. CUFI has been described as the “Gentile arm” of AIPAC, but many argue that Christian Zionists like Hagee actually function as the more powerful element of the pro-Israel lobby. (Following Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge“ offensive against Gaza last summer,, which claimed the lives of over 2,100 Palestinians and approximately 75 Israelis, Netanyahu said, “I consider CUFI to be a vital part of Israel’s national security.”)

Hagee’s commitment to Israel began in 1978, when he first visited there as a tourist. As he explains it, “I went to Israel as a tourist and came back a Zionist.” This conversion experience catalyzed the launch of the first “Night to Honor Israel” event in San Antonio in 1982. On average, CUFI currently stages 40 “Night to Honor Israel” events every month in cities across the country. While CUFI’s financials are exempt from public disclosure due to the organization’s classification as a church, it’s reported that since 1981 these events have raised almost $80 million for the express purpose of supporting Israel.

Evangelical support for Israel has a long history, but Israel’s link to the U.S. Religious Right can be traced back to 1978, when then Prime Minister Menachem Begin began cultivating a relationship with famed U.S. conservative evangelist Jerry Falwell, who made his first official trip to Israel at Begin’s invitation. The following year, in 1979, Begin’s government gifted Falwell with a Learjet to assist in his advocacy efforts on behalf of Israel. That same year, Falwell launched the Moral Majority, an organization that would finally succeed in asserting the Christian Right as a dominant voice in U.S. politics, forever altering the political landscape of America.

Seeking to expand Israel’s ties to this emerging hub of political power, in the early 1980s, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism began recruiting U.S. evangelical religious leaders for free “familiarization” tours (something like a birthright trip for Christians). These trips essentially functioned like a pro-Israel phone tree; participants on the familiarization tours were equipped with the knowledge and tools to later lead their own tours, thus creating opportunities for more and more Christians to visit—and become supporters of—Israel. The result was an increase in tourism dollars and, more importantly, a growing corps of non-Jewish Israel supporters in the United States.

This form of pro-Israel evangelism continues:

  • Last summer, the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) initiated a “Christians in Solidarity with Israel” trip to “stand in support of the nation’s right to defend itself from those who would deny their right to exist.”
  • In August 2014, CUFI coordinated a group of 51 pastors—one from each state and the District of Columbia—on a tour of Israel, during which they met with senior Israeli officials and donated blood to “help the wounded.”
  • Last month, the American Family Association—classified a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center—hosted an all-expense paid trip for members of the Republican National Committee.
  • Later this year, the right-wing Family Research Council is coordinating its first trip to Israel. Participants—who will be joined by FRC President Tony Perkins, former Senator Rick Santorum, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal—will have the opportunity to “build strategic relationships with political and spiritual leaders in Israel” and “gain a better understanding of Israel’s important role in today’s geopolitical affairs.”
  • Liberty Counsel—a legal organization dedicated to “advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and the family”—merged with Christians in Defense of Israel last year, and will be facilitating its own tour of Israel in May, which will include “briefings by Israeli government, military, business, and academic leaders.”

Leaders of these trips largely subscribe to a version of Christian Zionism that promotes activism attempting to hasten the second coming of Jesus, and helping Jews along with the role they are supposed to play in the drama of the End Times. As PRA fellow Rachel Tabachnick recently explained:

“In recent decades, leaders embracing Dominion Theology have often rejected Christian Zionism, but some Charismatic Christians have embraced a different form of dominionism that couples aggressive Christian triumphalism with “pro-Israel” activism. In this hybrid narrative, Jews must be converted (particularly in Israel) to bring about Jesus’ kingdom on earth.”

Despite its antisemitic undertones, Israel’s government recognizes that it benefits greatly from right-wing evangelical ties to American political leadership (the vast majority of whom are Christian). Additionally, Israel wants to protect its multibillion dollar tourism industry—a large portion of which is provided by Christian pilgrimages facilitated by American Right Wing leaders.

Those same leaders are celebrating Netanyahu’s visit this week, and threatening against any resistance to their agenda. Last month, John Hagee issued this warning: “I am a student of world history, and you can wrap up world history in 25 words or less and here it is: the nations that blessed Israel prospered and the nations that cursed Israel were destroyed by the hand of God. … If America turns its back on Israel, God will turn his back on America.”

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Cole Parke, research analyst at PRA, studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for more than a decade. Their research and writing examines the infrastructure, mechanisms, strategies, and effects of the Religious Right on LGBTQ people and reproductive rights, both domestically and internationally, always with an eye toward collective liberation.