The Truth About Christian Zionists

The Truth About Christian Zionists

It is curious — and deeply disappointing — to observe the way in which some figures on the pro-Israel American left discuss the phenomenon of Christian support for Israel. These are people who are capable of discerning subtle shifts in the mood of the Arab street. They delve into the complexities of Hamas politics and report back to us on apparent — if often meaningless — policy distinctions. But when the subject turns from Israel’s enemies to Israel’s friends, their palate grows dull. Suddenly, the shades of gray disappear and all that remains is stark black and white.

Such is my evaluation of M.J. Rosenberg’s July 24 piece, “Playing the Jesus Card,” in which the author provides a stunning example of exactly this sort of simplistic analysis. Rosenberg repeats three stereotypes about Christian Zionists that stand in stark contrast to the facts. First, he mischaracterizes the beliefs of Christian Zionists, claiming that they are “fundamentalist Christians whose theology dictates unwavering support for Israel.” Next, he confuses the politics of Christian Zionists when he imagines that they all “are hard-core Republicans.” Finally, he mistakes the policy of Christian Zionists when he asserts that they “emphatically support Israeli settlements and oppose the two-state solution.” 

Like all other stereotypes, these three fall apart upon deeper scrutiny. In the first case, not all “Christian Zionists” are “fundamentalists.” The membership of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) — the largest Christian pro-Israel organization in United States, of which I am executive director — demonstrates this fact. While a majority of our members may well be evangelical (a term that is hardly synonymous with “fundamentalist”), other streams of Christianity are well represented in our ranks. Our members include evangelicals and Episcopalians, Pentecostals and Presbyterians, Charismatics and Catholics. 

Even if one accepts the phony assertion that Christian supporters of Israel are exclusively evangelical, the claim that these evangelicals are exclusively Republican is demonstrably false. In 1992, Bill Clinton received a full one-third of the evangelical vote. In 2004, John Kerry received one-fourth of the evangelical vote. And in 2008, Barack Obama, too, received one in four of these votes. I am sure that CUFI’s many Democratic members would be amused by Rosenberg’s insistence that they do not exist.

It is certainly true that many Christian Zionists (as well as Jewish Zionists) are skeptical of the land-for-peace formula. And sadly, developments in the Middle East too often validate such skepticism. Yet most Christian supporters of Israel have never made opposition to the peace process the focus of their advocacy. Christians United for Israel, for instance, has never taken a position against a two-state solution or in favor of settlements. Instead, much like the leading Jewish pro-Israel organizations, CUFI supports the positions of the democratically elected government of Israel.

For example, like all Israelis, we are worried about the danger of a nuclear Iran. So from its inception, CUFI has focused on building support for economic sanctions that would pressure Tehran to abandon its nuclear program. Consistent with our position that Israelis must decide their own fate, we have asked the U.S. government not to pressure Israel into taking risks that Israeli citizens themselves do not wish to take.

CUFI’s support of Israel’s government reflects our deep respect for Israel’s democracy. The members of CUFI do not see Israel as some wayward banana republic that must be restrained or prodded by a wiser United States. We see, instead, an Israel that has behaved responsibly, with admirable restraint, and has repeatedly taken risks for peace, such as Israel’s withdrawal from Arab population centers in the West Bank in the 1990s, Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. If the Israelis want to take more risks for peace, we defer to their decision to do so. And if they instead conclude that these risks have not paid off, and choose through their votes to slow the pace of concessions, we once again defer. This is not extremism; it is humility.

Meanwhile, the critics of Christian Zionism, such as Rosenberg and the organization J Street, take a very different position toward Israel’s democracy: They disdain it. The will of the Israelis who fight the wars and suffer the terrorist attacks is of little consequence to them. These critics believe that they know better, and they are determined to overrule — through American fiat — what the Israelis have decided at the ballot box. This is, of course, their right. But as these critics elevate their rigid ideologies above the will of Israel’s electorate, they should know better than to label “extremist” those of us who defer to the Israelis. Even Christian Zionists know what “chutzpah” means.

Finally, a reality check is in order regarding Rosenberg’s outlandish claim that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is somehow “playing the Jesus card” —  that is, seeking to rally Christian support to overcome pressure from the Obama administration — because he agreed to speak, via satellite, at CUFI’s July summit. Netanyahu also spoke live via satellite at the May conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest Jewish pro-Israel lobby. It is natural that the two leading U.S. pro-Israel organizations would invite Israel’s sitting prime minister to address their delegates. And it is likewise natural that Israel’s prime minister would accept invitations from these two friends. No conspiracy here; simply common courtesy.