Nobody ever said it out loud at the church I attended in high school. But the message was clear. If you are a good Christian, if you believe the Bible, if you love Jesus, you are “pro-Israel.” And I was. And I am. Who wants to be anti-anyone?
The challenge facing many American evangelicals and their church leaders, though, is parsing the concept out. What precisely do we mean when we say we are “pro-Israel”? What does somebody who is pro-Israel think and do? And how does their thinking and doing shape the face of the conflict in Israel-Palestine,* for better or worse?
Most evangelical pastors don’t know, and have never met, an Israeli, let alone heard his or her unique perspective on the challenges facing their nation’s security and identity.
I took my first trip to the region in the fall of 2008. It was transformative on multiple levels and ultimately launched five years of dissertation research on how United States evangelical church leaders think about Israelis and Palestinians and how those views influence their churches’ activity, or lack thereof, in the Middle East.
Part of my research included a fairly comprehensive anonymous online survey that produced data from 297 US church leaders who self-identify as “evangelical.” I expected the survey to confirm the assumption that U.S. evangelicals, because they lean right-of-center both theologically and politically, are card-carrying members of the “pro-Israel” camp.
It does. And it doesn’t. What I find intrigues me.
A significant population of U.S. evangelicals are rejecting false dichotomy thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Indeed, 70 percent of church leaders describe their churches as both theologically and politically conservative. However, when asked, “Who do you sympathize with more in the current conflict in Israel/Palestine?” 41 percent answer “Israel,” 18 percent respond “Palestine,” and 31 percent say “Both.”
In other words, nearly a third of leaders surveyed are confident that it is possible to be simultaneously pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. This flies in the face of the historic, conventional rhetoric on this issue.
To date, many Americans (and by extension U.S. evangelicals) have held to a white hat/black hat/ good guy/bad guy geopolitical understanding of the Middle East. Yet the data seems to indicate that a significant population of U.S. evangelicals are rejecting false dichotomy thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And this is not true only among evangelical millennials: 64 percent of the survey respondents are age 50 and older. A full 85 perfect are over age 39.
With this in mind, defining “pro-Israel” evangelicals requires some nuance. If we use this stat in a vacuum, lumping the “pro-both” crowd in with the exclusively “pro-Israel,” we can say the dominant majority of U.S. evangelicals are indeed “pro-Israel.” But the “pro-Israel only” set, while still twice as large as the “pro-Palestine only,” constitutes a minority.
In my visits to Israel, I’ve been struck by the widespread, open, and often-heated debates among Israelis on matters related to the conflict there.
So, again: When U.S. evangelicals claim to be “pro-Israel,” what do they mean? For some, it means unquestioning and unwavering support of every current Israeli governmental policy concerning the West Bank and Gaza and an expectation for all U.S. foreign policy to provide the same. They have historical, theological and geopolitical arguments to buttress their case.
But what of the others, including these survey respondents who offer this clarification: “I wholeheartedly support the existence of the Israeli state and her right to defend agreed upon borders. I have legitimate concerns, however, about the impact of current Israeli policies in the Palestinian Territories on the safety, security and dignity of the Palestinian people”?
Does this group get awarded “pro-Israel” status? Or should they be designated something else altogether? Regardless of the verbiage used to describe them, could this group potentially represent a tipping point when it comes to how U.S. evangelicals view their role in addressing the challenges in Israel/Palestine?
I’m learning that being for the Israeli people means listening to, and understanding, their views on the issues directly affecting them. In my numerous visits to Israel, I’ve been struck by the widespread, open, and often-heated debates among Israelis on matters related to the conflict there. But most evangelical pastors don’t know, and have never met, an Israeli, let alone heard his or her unique perspective on the challenges facing their nation’s security and identity. I have met, and continue to meet, Israelis whose friendships matter deeply to me. Their stories shape my understanding of the conflict, their challenges compel me to maintain a learning posture and many of their convictions inspire me.
Can I support the Israeli people in their desire for safety, security and autonomy, and also express reservations about the current state of affairs in the Palestinian Territories? I believe I can and should. No, I don’t think Tehran should get nuclear weapons. No, I don’t believe peace will come without sacrifice among both Israelis and Palestinians. No, I don’t think the status quo in the West Bank is sustainable.
But we’ve been framing the question wrong. Rather than asking “Are you pro-Israel?” we can start asking, “Which vision of Israel’s future are you committing to creating with your voice, your compassion, your service and your faith?”
*Even the language we use to refer the region is problematic. Some refer to the West Bank as the Palestinian Territories, others as Occupied Territories and still others as Judea-Samaria. I’m opting for a common academic usage to refer to both Israel and the Palestinian Territories: “Israel/Palestine.”