Was there an event that made this alliance stronger? Has it always been under the radar?
Evangelical Christians largely shunned politics until the late 1970s, when Jerry Falwell created the Moral Majority and led them back onto the political playing field. Israel was among the priorities of the Christian Right from the start. In fact, when Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority he made support for Israel one of the group’s four organizing principles along with the issue of abortion, traditional marriage, and a strong U.S. defense.
While Israel was always important to evangelicals, a recent event did make Israel even more of a priority. On September 11, 2001, evangelicals recognized along with many other Americans that radical Islam was the greatest threat facing our country and that we were in a war with its proponents. And in this war, Israel is seen as an ally and as the first line of defense of Judeo-Christian civilization. Support for this embattled ally has moved to center stage.
Evangelicals who support Israel really don't want to convert people?
Evangelicals who support Israel most certainly do want to convert people. Evangelicals who don’t support Israel also want to convert people. The mission of sharing the “good news” of Jesus Christ is central to being an evangelical. But it is important to note that this is not about converting just the Jews—Christians want to share their faith with Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and their Christian friends and neighbors who have yet to be born again.
The important question is this: Is evangelical support for Israel merely a tool in the effort to convert the Jews? Is this merely some scheme to soften the Jews up so that they can better sell Jesus to them? And the answer to this question is absolutely not.
If anything, the opposite it true. I and others who have worked with Christians in support of Israel all report that no one has ever tried to convert us. In fact, Christians who support Israel tend to know more Jews and to understand their sensitivities better than Christians who do not. Thus, they have learned that Jews find “Jesus talk” offensive, and they tend to leave it out of the dialogue.
For most of Christian history, the dominant Christian theology towards the Jews was “replacement theology,” which held that when the Jews rejected Jesus as their messiah, God rejected the Jews as his chosen people. The Church replaced the Jews as the “Israel” to whom so much is promised in the Bible. Once the Jews were thus removed from God’s love, the door was opened to man’s hate. And this was a door through which generation after generation of Christians walked.
But ever since the Reformation, there have been some small groups of Protestants who have rejected replacement theology and who believe—as Jews do—that the word “Israel” in the Bible means the Jews. Under this reading, the Jews continue to be the beneficiaries of God’s love and promises, and the Bible becomes an exhortation to Zionism and philo-Semitism. In early 20th-century America, the nascent fundamentalist movement embraced this minority view and rejected replacement theology. As this movement grew and spread throughout America, the number of Christians who adhered to this theology grew as well, to the point that it is the ascendant strain of American Christianity today. Thus fundamentalist/evangelical support for Israel is not a trend, fad, or public relations ploy—it is a bedrock religious belief.
It is also important to add that, after the Holocaust, the Roman Catholic Church and most mainline Protestant denominations recognized the danger of replacement theology and formally rejected it. But replacement theology under new names and guises is still out there, and it still does theological combat with the more Judeo-centric interpretation that drives the Christian Zionists.
Beyond politics, what good stuff do Christian Zionists do for Israel?
They do lots of good stuff. For starters, Christians give millions of dollars to Israel and Jewish causes every year. These funds support a variety of missions, including:
• The cost of transporting poor Jews from the former Soviet Union, Argentina and Ethiopia to live in Israel.
• Supporting poor Jews who stay behind in these countries.
• Supporting disadvantaged Jews and terror victims in Israel
Beyond giving money, Christians also volunteer their time. Christian Zionists can be found throughout the former Soviet Union, teaching Jews about the opportunities and assistance available to them in Israel. Many Christian volunteers also go to Israel, where they contribute to Israeli society by operating food banks, homeless shelters, and providing health and repair services to those in need.
How widespread is a Jewish suspicion of Christian Zionists?
As widespread as falafel stands in Tel Aviv. Jews tend not to know very much about Christian theology or Christian history. As a result, they tend to lump all Christians together and hold them equally responsible for the anti-Semitic atrocities committed by Christians in the past. If more Jews understood the profound theological differences between evangelical Christians in America today and the Christians of Europe in prior centuries, I think they would be more open to an alliance.
Not lately. There was a period in the late 1990’s when Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s executive director, was saying very positive thing about Christian Zionists. He invited Ralph Reed to address an ADL dinner, and he even paid to reprint one of Reed’s pro-Israel articles in major newspapers. Yet lately, Foxman has been sounding like his old self on this issue. Late last year he claimed that evangelical Christians are the greatest domestic threat to the Jews. I wish we lived in a world where law abiding, patriotic, and philo-Semitic Christians were our biggest worry.
Are Christian Zionists mostly conservative? Are Jews mostly liberal? Does that make matters weirder?
Yes, yes, and yes. There is no doubt that one of the major stumbling blocks to a warmer evangelical-Jewish embrace is the fact that these communities tend to differ on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage (except for orthodox Jews, who tend to share the evangelicals’ opposition to both). Yet these differences need not be a stumbling block. There are hundreds of political coalitions out there, and what characterizes every last one of them is not that the member organizations agree on every issue, but that they agree on at least one issue—the issue that brought them to form a coalition in the first place. I think certain die-hard liberals in the Jewish community need to get over their belief that people who disagree with them on abortion or gay marriage are somehow beyond the pale of civil discourse. Reasonable people can and do differ on these issues.
Who were the Ten Booms and how are they relevant today?
The Ten Booms were a family of devout Christians living in Holland during World War II. When the Germans occupied their city and began rounding up the Jews, the Ten Booms organized an underground railroad, hiding Jews in their home and then leading them under cover or darkness to hiding places that other like-minded Christians ran in the countryside. At the time of their arrest by the Nazis in 1944, the ten Boom family had organized a network of more than eighty volunteers who had rescued more than seven hundred Jews.
The ten Boom family paid dearly for its heroism. Casper ten Boom, the family patriarch, became sick in prison and died within days of his arrest. Both his daughter Betsie and his grandson Kik died in Nazi concentration camps. His son Willem ten Boom survived the concentration camps but emerged terribly ill and died shortly thereafter. Casper’s daughter Corrie ten Boom survived the concentration camps and spent the rest of her life sharing her family’s faith and story.
The ten Booms are highly relevant today because they demonstrate the sincerity and depth of the evangelical commitment to the Jewish people. The ten Booms were explicit in their rejection of replacement theology. And they were explicit in their love for the Jews. They risked (and lost) their lives to save Jews because of this Christian faith, not despite it.
There is a direct theological line from the Ten Booms to the Christian Zionists of today. While Jews no longer need to be hidden in Jewish homes, we do need Christian support in confronting new threats such as those from Iran and Hamas. We should embrace these modern-day righteous gentiles and work with them to defend Israel.
How are Christian Zionists obsessed with the Holocaust?
When it comes to the Holocaust, Christian Zionists remind me of Jews. The Holocaust is the point of reference, the great calamity against which all actions and threats are judged. Yet the obsession may even be greater among certain Christians because they feel guilty about the fact that people claiming to share their faith permitted this atrocity. Thus they seize every opportunity to stand up for the Jews and in so doing demonstrate how true Christians behave.
A longing to make amends for the Holocaust often figures prominently in Christian Zionist speeches and fundraising literature. And the desire not to permit a second Holocaust drives their mounting alarm over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. No other community—with the possible exception of the Jews themselves—stresses the parallels between Hitler in the 1930s and Iran’s President Ahmadinejad today as do the evangelicals.
You defend Pat Robertson. Why bother?
Because Pat Robertson is a good man. Because he has served America and Israel admirably over a long career. Shame on us if we let the mainstream media decide for us whom to honor and whom to cast aside.
Does Pat Robertson say some regrettable things? Sure. Does he apologize for these statements? Yes. Should the occasional inappropriate comment lead us to forget all he has done for Israel? I certainly hope not. Time after time Pat Robertson has thrown his significant political support behind Israel. He has visited Israel so many times he has lost count. And Robertson runs a major Christian university (Regent University), where he teaches the next generation of Christian leaders to support Israel. We should stand by our friends even when they err.
Are there any prominent Christians you would not defend on anti-Semitism charges?
Where do I begin? David Duke. David Irving. Half of Europe. But when it comes to evangelical Christians, I’m not aware of any prominent anti-Semites. I think the two are incompatible.
Do you think you needlessly look too hard for specifically Christian reasons for the president, the secretary of State and others to support Israel? Doesn't it just make good geopolitical sense?
I’m very careful in my book to state that the president has a number of strong political and geopolitical motives for supporting Israel, and that no one really knows the role that religion plays in his thinking.
That being said, however, there is definitely reason to believe that Bush’s faith does affect administration policy, both foreign and domestic. Look at the major difference between the way this President Bush treats Israel and the way his father did. Have the geopolitics really changed so much since Bush 41 left the White House? No. Has the religious orientation of the president changed? You bet.
Speaking of Christians and conservatives…Arlen Specter gets juiced by criticism from the Right, doesn't he?
He’s not terribly fond of criticism from anyone.
Whom do you want to read your book?
I want Jews to read my book so that they will get over their fears of evangelicals and embrace our friends. I want Christians to read my book so that they will understand both the imperatives of supporting Israel and the wary reaction they will receive from the Jewish community. And I want people who are interested in politics and foreign policy to read my book so that they can better comprehend the birth pangs of what in time will be a very important alliance.