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Reagan and Begin, Bibi and Jerry: the theopolitical alliance of the Likud party with the American Christian "right".

On 19 January 1998, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington, D.C. for what the press characterized as a critical showdown with President Clinton concerning the faltering Middle East peace process. Shortly after arriving, Netanyahu went directly to a gathering of the Christian "right" where Jerry Falwell and over 1,000 fundamentalist Christians saluted him as "the Ronald Reagan of Israel."(1)

Netanyahu's meeting with the Christian "right" prior to the important session with the President was simultaneously strategic and symbolic. For one, the ideologically conservative Likud Party and its advocates in the U.S. Jewish Lobby (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Zionist Organization of America, Americans for a Safe Israel, etc.) were issuing a "Declaration of Independence" from the Labor-oriented Clinton Administration and its approach to the Middle East peace process, also known as the Oslo Accords. A second development was Netanyahu's ability to consolidate political support within the Republican "right," a matter that seems to have been advanced considerably during a meeting with Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, later that same evening.

As for his role, Jerry Falwell pledged that he would embark upon a campaign to contact over 200,000 Evangelical pastors, asking them to "tell President Clinton to refrain from putting pressure on Israel,"(2) a message Gingrich echoed at a press conference the next day. Netanyahu could now rest in the relative comfort that he had sufficient influence within the United States Congress concerning the formulation of Middle East policy. For the time being, the Clinton Administration would be unable to counter Likud strategies on a variety of issues, as Israel continued accelerated settlement construction and delays in military withdrawal from previously agreed upon West Bank positions.

As for the President, a strange coincidence occurred on the very day of his anticipated meeting with Netanyahu. On the morning of 20 January 1998, initial news broke concerning the President's sexual exploits with intern Monica Lewinsky. Concern over the stalled Middle East peace process vanished as interest shifted to an issue that would consume both Congress and the American public for the next year: a sex-scandal in the White House. The shift in focus was evident two days later during the press conference with a visibly angered U.S. President and humiliated Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. The Middle East peace process had been completely upstaged by news of the Lewinsky caper. Later that afternoon, Netanyahu left Washington, D.C. in a far stronger political position than when he arrived some 72 hours earlier and the Clinton Administration's critique of the Likud leader's noncompliance with the Olso Accords were temporarily forgotten.

The Netanyahu meeting with Rev. Falwell and his followers presents an interesting political and theological convergence that has a fascinating but relatively unknown history. The Netanyahu-Falwell meeting was hardly a surprise, but the priority given to it by Netanyahu and his U.S. "handlers" was significant. In the following essay I will focus on the recent history of the Likud-Christian "right" relationship in the United States, examining its emergence as a political reality during the Carter Administration and its peak phase during the Reagan presidency. Then we will turn to its resurgence during the Clinton Administration and briefly examine one case that illustrates the effects of this alliance on United States' Middle East policy.


Christian fascination with "Israel" and its prophetic role at the end of history has been an important but consistently minor theme in Christianity since the days of Jesus and the early Church. Most scholars who specialize in this field, such as Bernard McGinn of the University of Chicago,(3) accept the theory that the first generation of Christians were influenced by Jewish Apocalyptic(4) thought, which itself can be traced to Persian religious influences (Zoroastrianism, etc.) during Israel's captivity by the Babylonians and later the Medes and Persians (587-530 BCE). Jewish Apocalypticism was gaining acceptance during the 200 BCE-135 C.E. period, the same era in which Christianity emerged. One sees this same influence in the New Testament writer Luke's account of Jesus' Ascension, which inserts an Apocalyptic question into the mouths of unnamed Disciples: "Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Interestingly, Jesus rebuked the Disciples and responded: "It is not for you to know the times or seasons that God has fixed by his own authority" (Verse 7).

Apocalyptic eschatology also shows up occasionally in the other Gospels (Matthew 24), the early Pauline letters (I Thess. 5:1-11), and throughout the Book of Revelation. While this model of eschatology did not dominate early Christianity it did surface at intervals, particularly in advance of a centennial year or following a significant crisis.

One version of this eschatological thought that gained a degree of popularity in the early church is called "historic premillennialism," which believed Jesus would rerum to earth prior to the establishment of his thousand year kingdom ("pre-millennial" = before the 1000 year Kingdom). We see expressions of this model of eschatology in I Thessalonians 4-5; and in the "Didache" and Shepherd of Hermas (both Christian writings dated in the 100150 C.E. era). Also, the Christian theologians Justin Martyr (160 C.E.) and Tertullian (c. 190-220 C.E.) utilized premillennial imagery in their writings. Apocalyptic themes became a minor dimension of Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, except during centennial or milennial periods. For example, during the 990-1000 C. E. decade there was considerable speculation about the end of the world and the return of Christ, but the phase quickly passed.

However, the Cabalists, a theosophical and mystical Jewish movement, gained popularity in medieval Spain It retained the Apocalyptic imagery in speculation about such issues as the anticipated return to Jerusalem, the arrival of the Messiah, and the end of history. The Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in the 1490s increased speculation about these themes and disseminated them throughout western Europe, a process that soon converged with the Protestant Reformation (16th Century C.E.). Some theologians believe the dissemination of Cabalistic Apocalypticism were combined with the more literal interpretation of the Bible by the second generation of the Protestant reformers, leading to a renewed interest in millennial theology.

While the Apocalyptic themes gained currency within certain Protestant movements, they did not receive broad public support until the eighteenth century when a particular version of premillennial eschatology emerged in England called "futurist premillennialism." It was rooted in three streams of British Evangelical Christianity: 1.) historic premillennialism, as described above but with features unique to England; 2.) the literal hermeneutics (the theology of Biblical interpretation) of English Puritanism and its unique view of certain eschatological themes; and 3.) British fascination with the idea of Israel and a view that postulated that the British people were the "new Israel," also called "British Israelism." With the exception of the Reformation's influence, all three themes can be traced back at least to the sixth century C.E. We see them reflected in the English historian, Venerable Bede (673-735 C.E.), and the first known British literature, "The Epistle of Gildas" of the sixth century C.E.

For our purposes, let us look briefly at the sixteenth century and mention two of the early British premillennialists who were forerunners of the "futurist premillennial" movement. In 1585 Thomas Brightman, an Anglican priest, wrote a controversial treatise titled "Apocalypsis Apocalypseos."(5) Brightman called upon Christians to interpret prophetic texts concerning Israel as having a future, literal fulfillment and told believers to look for certain prophetic signs that could be decoded from the Bible. Among the signs will be the return of Jews to Palestine and in particular their gathering in Jerusalem to rebuild the third Jewish Temple. After considerable controversy, Brightman was forced to withdraw the treatise and reject these beliefs, but they simply went underground.

A generation later an influential lawyer and disciple of Brightman, Henry Finch, a Member of the British Parliament, published similar views in 1621. Finch called upon the British people and Parliament to support Jewish settlement in Palestine in order to fulfill Biblical prophecy. In his influential pamphlet, Finch displayed the fusing of Christian Apocalyptic thought and a literal hermeneutic, calling for the establishment of the Jewish nation: "[The Jews] shall repair to their own country, shall inherit all of the land as before, shall live in safety, and shall continue in it forever."(6) Finch went on to call for the government and people of England to support this restoration, both to fulfill the prophetic scriptures and to receive God's blessings as instrument of the eschatological realization.

Initially, these early advocates of futurist premillennialism were dismissed as lunatics or perhaps worse, as supporters of the anti-monarchy movement in England. Their views fell into disfavor for a time after the collapse of the Cromwell "experiment." However, the seeds of this theology ran deep in the British imagination and would lie dormant for only a season.

Following the American and French Revolutions, many Europeans felt insecure, sensing that their world was collapsing. Historian LeRoy Froom reflects this sense of doom and its role in eschatological expectation:

After the troublous times of the American Revolution and its aftermath, and especially after the devastating effects of the infidelic French philosophy, men turned again to the Bible for light, especially the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. They were seeking a satisfying explanation of the prevailing irreligion of the time and to find God's way out of the situation.(7)

A spokesman who brought a millennialist perspective and a program to England after the turn of the century was Louis Way, an Anglican clergyman who was fascinated with the ancient Apocalyptic themes. After studying Biblical prophecy, Way came to believe that the Jews would be restored in Palestine during his lifetime. Such an event would indicate that the physical return of Jesus Christ was imminent. In 1809, Way became the director of a floundering missionary group, the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews. Through his dedicated work and skillful efforts, Way was able gain a degree of acceptance for the Society in mainstream Anglican circles and to the surprise of many, a small but significant following among certain intellectuals. Soon his journal, The Jewish Expositor became popular among many clergy, academics, and literary figures such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Way emphasized three themes, all of which anticipated the contemporary movement called Christian Zionism. First, Jewish "restoration" was emphasized as a necessary historical and political phenomenon. Second, careful charting and interpretation of present day events would become a primary task of informed Christians, who with sufficient study and inspiration, could decode the signs of the times pointing to the "end." Third, the restored Jewish nation in Palestine would be a sign of the end of history and prelude to Jesus' return to earth. Also, the restored Jewish nation would be a gift to the Jewish people and a project worthy of every Englishman.(8)

Several millennial theologies emerged during this period and continued for more than a hundred years, led by Rev. John Nelson Darby, a renegade Anglican priest from Ireland. Darby captured the spirit of his age and offered convincing new perspectives on the familiar Biblical texts while blending them with fresh Apocalyptic interpretations. Gradually, his sixty years of unceasing travel and preaching across the European and North America continents convinced a generation of Evangelical clergy and laity to adopt futurist premillennialism as the correct way to understand not only the Bible, but history.

Darby's theology articulated the following features:

* Biblical prophecies and much of scripture must be interpreted according to a literal and predictive hermeneutic;

* the true Church will be removed from history in an event called the "Rapture," based on I Thessalonians 5:1-11, and Israel the nation will be restored as God's primary instrument. The Rapture entailed the literal vanishing of "born again" Christians from history and their "translation" into heaven, in order that they would escape the war and "tribulation" to come;

* seven historical epochs or "dispensations" were outlined by Darby and they became the formula by which fundamentalist western Christians interpreted history for the next one hundred and fifty years. Each epoch reflects a particular manner by which God deals with humanity, such as the present dispensation of "Grace" or its predecessor "Law." This approach is also called "Dispensationalism," or "Premillennial Dispensationalism."

* the futurist premillenial view of history was decidedly pessimistic, pointing to the "Rapture" of true believers prior to the "Tribulation" (an extended period of warfare between the forces of good and evil, with Jesus and modern Israel representing the good and the Antichrist and his coalition representing evil). The ultimate historical showdown would occur in the Valley of Megiddo in north central Israel, called the Battle of Armageddon. Christians are encouraged to study the "signs" of the times so they will be able to anticipate Jesus' imminent return.(9) Evangelical historian Timothy Weber summarizes the futurist premillennial worldview and its pessimistic orientation toward history:

Premillennialists reject popular notions of human progress and believe that history is a game that the righteous cannot win. For them, the historical process is a never ending battle between good and evil, whose course God has already conceded to the Devil. People may be redeemed in history but history itself is doomed. History's only hope lies in its own destruction.... At the end of the present age, the forces of evil will be marshaled by Satan's emissary, the Antichrist, who will attempt to destroy God's purposes. After an intense period of tribulation, Christ will return to earth, resurrect the righteous dead, defeat Antichrist and his legions at Armageddon, bind Satan, and establish his millennial rule.(10)

Darby brought these perspectives into the popular Bible and Prophecy Conference movement in the United States during the 1870-1890 period when premillennial dispensationalism became the dominant method of Biblical interpretation in the emerging Evangelical branch of Protestantism. Among the great leaders who were influenced by Darby's teachings were evangelists Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday. An early disciple of Darby was the writer and political organizer William E. Blackstone, who brought premillennial dispensationalism to millions of Americans in his national bestseller Jesus is Coming (1878). Blackstone is credited with organizing the first Zionist lobbying effort in the United States in 1891, when he enlisted financiers J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Charles B. Scribner, and others to underwrite an elaborate newspaper campaign designed to influence President Harrison and request his support of a Jewish state in Palestine.(11) It should be underscored that this lobbying effort was initiated, financed, and conducted by American Christian philanthropists and fundamentalist Christians.

Perhaps the most influential vehicle for advancing the views of premillennial dispensationalism was the publication in 1909 of the Scofield Reference Bible. C. I. Scofield became a follower of Darby's teachings and applied them well in his early pastorates in rural Oklahoma and Pennsylvania. While maintaining contact with the Bible and Prophecy Conference movement and its leadership, Scofield drew the major teachings of dispensationalism from others and decided to publish an annotated version of the Bible with an outline and explanatory keys superimposed on the text. The Scofield Reference Bible soon became the standard text of the emerging fundamentalist movement and helped hasten the adoption of futurist premillennialism in conservative Protestant circles throughout the United States and Canada.

Meanwhile, important developments within British evangelicalism had been underway in England, many with political overtones. The movement was led by Evangelical social reformer Lord Shaftesbury, who like Blackstone, was so taken with the idea of a modern Jewish state that he translated it into a political agenda. Shaftesbury was a member of the influential Clapham Sect, a London-based fellowship of influential Evangelical Christian Members of Parliament and clergy, who were committed to social reform and a faithful Biblical expression of Christianity. In 1839, Shaftesbury published a thirty-nine page essay in the distinguished literary journal Quarterly Review titled "State and Restoration of the Jews." The essay stated in part: "the Jews must be encouraged to return [to Palestine] in yet greater numbers and become once more the husbandman of Judea and Galilee."(12)

Shaftesbury's essay put forth two important proposals that had political implications. First, he outlined the role that Britain must play in facilitating the rerum of the Jews to power and residence in Palestine. Second, he called upon Parliament to finance and facilitate the establishment of an Anglican Bishopric in Jerusalem. For Shaftesbury, the political and spiritual realms were united by England's eschatological role in the latter days, for if Her Majesty's government would restore the Jews to Palestine, then England would be God's instrument in facilitating the return of Christ and be in line to receive God's blessing. Shaftesbury cited Genesis 12:3 as his primary Biblical text to support the argument: "I will bless those who bless you and through you will all the nations of the earth be blessed."

In the following year Shaftesbury gained access to key leaders in the Foreign Office of the British government and mounted a persistent campaign to achieve his goals. On 4 November 1840, he took out a paid advertisement in the London Times that gave public visibility to his campaign. The advertisement stated in part:

RESTAURATION OF THE JEWS: A memorandum has been addressed to the Protestant monarchs of Europe on the subject of the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Palestine. The document in question, dictated by a particular conjunction of affairs in the East, and other striking 'signs of the times,' reverts to the original covenant which secures that land to the descendants of Abraham.(13)

Lord Shaftesbury lived to see one of his visions come to pass, for in 1843 Parliament authorized the establishment of an Anglican Bishopric in Jerusalem, due in large part to his untiring political efforts. Shaftesbury's other vision, a Jewish state in Palestine, involved a far more complex and grandiose series of events, but it would follow in due season, thanks in part to Shaftesbury's pioneering efforts.

Lord Shaftesbury's influence in western Europe in preparing for the acceptance of modern political Jewish Zionism cannot be overstated. One relatively small but important contribution that can be traced to Shaftesbury is the theme of the early Zionist leaders Max Nordau and Theodor Herzl: "a land of no people for a people with no land." Shaftesbury's phrase, which was formulated in the 1839 essay mentioned above, stated: "a people with no country for a country of no people."(14) The Shaftesbury legacy would bear fruit some fifty years later when both Lord Arthur Balfour and Prime Minister David Lloyd George facilitated the political procedures that gave the Zionist movement its initial international legitimacy, making a Jewish state inevitable. As a side-note, I would add that Lloyd George and Balfour, the two most powerful persons in British foreign policy at the close of World War I, were both raised in futurist premillennial dispensationalist churches and remained committed to this view of the Bible and history.(15)

Balfour combined a commitment to the British imperial agenda, which viewed its territories as stepping stones to expand British power globally and in the Middle East to secure a land bridge to the "Jewel of the Crown," India. In the Middle East his loosely articulated form of Christian Zionism played a critical role in the formulation of his policies. These views were clear a speech during 1919:

For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.... The four great powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import that the desires and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.(16)

Clearly, British imperial visions dominated Balfour's agenda, but we also see the influence of Christian Zionist presuppositions in such phrases as "age-long traditions" and "future hopes." His overwhelmingly negative view of "Arabs" when combined with his predilection to favor Zionism brought the fruits of nearly two hundred years of Christian Zionist and only twenty years of Jewish Zionist lobbying with British support of Jewish national interests. The Balfour Declaration opened the door to Zionist colonization and a form of legitimacy for their cause, and soon the Arab Palestinian hopes were eclipsed.


The establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 stimulated premillennial dispensationalist advocates and gave them new momentum. To see the Jewish people restored as a nation was a sign that the clock of Biblical prophecy was ticking and history was rapidly approaching the final events leading to the return of Jesus and the close of the age. During the Cold War, dispensationalists readily interpreted the Soviet Union and its allies as the Antichrist, turning to such passages as Ezekiel 38-39 as the classic prediction of an impending Soviet attack on Israel. According to this scenario, joining the Soviets would be a Ten Member confederation, frequently interpreted as the European Union, based on the ten toes of the "the beast" in the Old Testament book of Daniel. (Initially the EU had ten members which dispensationalists interpreted as a fulfillment of the ten toes of the beast.)

When Israel captured Jerusalem in the June 1967 war, dispensationalists were certain that the end was near. L. Nelson Bell, Billy Graham's father-in-law and editor of the influential evangelical magazine Christianity Today wrote in an editorial of July 1967: "That for the first time in more than 2000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives the student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible."(17)

By the early 1970s there were numerous books, films, and television specials that gave further popularity to the premillennial dispensationalist perspective. Authors such as Hal Lindsay made a virtual industry out of his volume The Late Great Planet Earth, which has sold over 25 million copies, led to two films, a consulting business with clientele that included several Members of Congress, the Pentagon, CIA, Israeli Generals, and later Ronald Reagan. By the late-1970s, the climate was ripe for an organized political venture.

With the arrival of the American bicentennial at least five trends converged in the U.S. religious and political landscape that accelerated the rise of Christian Zionism. First, the fastest growing branch of North American Christianity were the conservative Evangelical and Charismatic movements, where premillennial dispensationalism was rooted. Mainline Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church were facing declining budgets and attendance, a trend that has continued since the early 1960s. Second, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher was elected President of the United States in 1976, giving increased visibility and a degree of legitimacy to the once marginalized evangelical movement. Time magazine declared 1976 as "the year of the evangelical" and suddenly evangelicals were not only affirmed, but some were respected. Still, the mainstream media seemed confused by the various traditions and polarities within the complex evangelical movement, failing to distinguish Charismatics from fundamentalist Baptists, or the diverse political and theological voices that were clamoring to claim the term "evangelical" for their particular viewpoint.

A third development concerned Israel and pro-Israel lobby organizations and networks in the United States. Since the 1967 War and Israel's occupation of Arab lands, many Jewish organizations had been experiencing tension with the mainline Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic communities. Jewish organizations and lobbies such as AIPAC (American-Israel Political Affairs Committee). turned to the growing evangelical community for support, as Marc Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Committee stated: "The evangelical community is the largest and fastest-growing block of pro-Jewish sentiment in this country."(18) Several Jewish organizations like AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) added staff to facilitate new relationships with evangelicals and fundamentalists. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism turned its attention toward the Bible Belt and viewed evangelicals as a major new market for Holy Land tours and revenue for Israel.

The fourth factor that accelerated the emerging evangelical Christian Zionist movement's political agenda was the election of Menachem Begin as Israel's Prime Minister in May 1977. Prior to Begin's election, Israeli politics had been dominated by the more secular Labor Party. Now a more right-wing ideological government came to power in Israel, Begin's Likud Party dominated by hard-line military personalities such as Raphael Eitan and Ariel Sharon, plus the increasingly powerful settler movement and smaller Orthodox religious parties. Likud constituencies utilized the Biblical names "Judea and Samaria" for the West Bank and employed the "divine argument" to justify its confiscation of Arab land for settlements (i.e., God had given the land exclusively to Jews and they had a divine "right" to settle anywhere in Eretz Israel). The Christian "right" welcomed the Likud leaders and the two bonded at the political and theological levels.

A fifth development may have been the primarily catalyst to accelerate the initial phase of the Likud-Christian "right" political alliance. When the newly elected evangelical President Jimmy Carter stated during a speech in March 1977, that he supported Palestinian human rights, including their "right to a homeland," the Israeli lobby and Christian Zionists shifted into political overdrive. Previously, the Labor Government had expressed its displeasure with the Carter Administration's openness to a United Nations brokered International Peace Conference on the Middle East conflict, based on UN Resolutions 242 and 338 (essentially the exchange of Israeli-occupied Arab land for peace and security arrangements). Likud came to power just two months after Carter's statement and immediately mobilized the broad evangelical community. Their strategy was simple: to split the evangelical and fundamentalist Christians from Carter's political base and simultaneously to rally support among conservative Christian Americans for Israel's opposition to the United Nations peace conference.

Within a matter of weeks, full-page advertisements appeared in major newspapers across the United States. The texts stated in part: "The time has come for evangelical Christians to affirm their belief in biblical prophecy and Israel's divine right to the land." The text then shifted to target Soviet involvement in the UN International Conference: "We are particularly troubled by the erosion of American support for Israel evident in the joint U.S.-USSR statement." Taking aim at Carter's recent statement, the text went on: "We affirm as Evangelicals our belief in the promised land to the Jewish people. . . . We would view with grave concern any effort to carve out of the Jewish homeland another nation or political entity."(19) The ad was financed and coordinated from Jerusalem by the Institute for Holy Land Studies, an Evangelical organization with a Christian Zionist orientation. Several leading American fundamentalists with a dispensationalist theological orientation signed the ad, including Kenneth Kantzer of Christianity Today and Trinity Seminary (Deerfield, IL.), the singer Pat Boone, and Dallas Seminary president and dispensationalist theologian, John Walvoord. The advertisement campaign was the first contemporary sign of a Likud-Evangelical Christian-Zionist alliance engaging in a specific political strategy that opposed the policy of a standing U.S. President and the State Department. Investigations by several Christian scholars failed to solve the source of funding the expensive advertising strategy, but a former employee of the American Jewish Committee, Jerry Strober, who coordinated the campaign gave a clue when he told Newsweek magazine: "[The Evangelicals] are Carter's constituency and he [had] better listen to them. . . . The real source of strength the Jews have in this country is from the Evangelicals."(20)

At times the new alliance proved to be uncomfortable for Jewish leaders, as when newly elected President of the Southern Baptist convention, Bailey Smith, stated publicly that "God does not hear the prayers of the Jews." Within weeks, Rev. Smith was taken to Israel by the American Jewish Committee and his views were "corrected." While Christian Zionists and Jewish organizations agree on many levels, their deep-seated anti-Semitism, their desire to establish a conservative Christian government in the United States, and their enthusiasm for evangelizing Jews remain problematic.


The 1980 election saw the Evangelical vote swing to Ronald Reagan who became President of the United States with the full support of major Jewish organizations, the pro-Israel lobby, and the Christian "right." Certainly, the Iran hostage crisis hurt Jimmy Carter more than any other factor, but his near total loss of what was estimated to be twenty million Evangelical voters played a significant role in his defeat. By 1980, Likud policy was aggressively represented on Capitol Hill by AIPAC but also within the Reagan Administration itself. For example, when Israel decided to embark upon its controversial invasion of Lebanon in the spring of 1982, Begin sent Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to Washington to enlist the Reagan Administration's support. By late May, Sharon was given the green light by Secretary of State Alexander Haig. Within days of the June 1982 invasion, full page advertisements appeared in the New York Times and other leading newspapers requesting evangelical support of Israel's invasion.(21)

Prime Minister Begin developed a unique relationship with President Reagan and many fundamentalist Christian leaders, especially Jerry Falwell. As head of the largest lobby of the Christian "right," Falwell and the Moral Majority had long been supporters of Israel on both the political and ideological levels. In 1979, according to author Grace Halsell, Israel rewarded Falwell with the girl of a Lear Jet and later honored the televangelist with the prestigious Jabotinsky Award during an elaborate dinner ceremony in New York, a year later.(22) In the spring of 1981, when Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear plant near Baghdad, Begin did not initially call President Reagan or anyone in the administration, but dialed Jerry Falwell and requested that "he explain to the Christian public the reasons for the bombing."(23) Clearly, the Israeli leadership had noted both the public relations and the political potential of the evangelical and fundamentalist "right," and set in motion a defense of its actions. On 13 March 1985, while speaking to the conservative Rabbinical Assembly in Miami, Falwell pledged to "Mobilize 70 million conservative Christians for Israel and against anti-Semitism,"(24 a) theme echoed again in January 1998. Falwell is also credited with the conversion of Senator Jesse Helms from an anti-Israeli position to becoming its most staunch ally, a matter worth considerable economic and political value as Helms went on to Chair the important Senate Foreign Relations Committee.(25)

A regular feature of the Reagan White House was the series of seminars and briefings the Administration gave its Christian "right" supporters. One example was the 19 March 1984 briefing by Reagan staff, the pro-Likud lobby (Americans for a Safe Israel and AIPAC), and State Department officials. Approximately 150 Christian fundamentalist leaders were invited to the event, reflecting the priority given to this constituency by the Reagan White House. The Christian participation was a virtual "Who's Who" list of the Christian Zionist movement, including author Hal Lindsay, televangelists Jimmy Swaggert, Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, authors and activists Tim and Bey LeHaye, and political strategist Ed McAteer of the Religious Roundtable. The briefing was led by leaders from the Likud lobby in Washington, D.C. and top Reagan spokesmen such as J. William Middendoff (head of the OAS) and Bud McFarlane, later of Iran-Contra fame. Quietly working in the background was Marine Colonel Oliver North. The intimate Likud-Reagan Administration briefings reflected the unity of the two policies.(26)

Ronald Reagan himself was a committed Christian Zionist and his support for Israel had both strategic political and loosely articulated premillennial dispensationalist underpinnings. Reagan seemed to have a fascination with Israel's role at the end of history and often referred to it, both in private and on at least eight public occasions. One of the private instances was embarrassingly reported in the press and claimed that the President was engaged in a telephone conversation with Tom Dine, Executive Director of the Likud-oriented Israeli lobby AIPAC. Reagan said: "You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if - if we're the generation that is going to see that come about. I don't know if you've noted any of these prophecies lately, but believe me, they certainly describe the times we're going through." The remark was published in the Jerusalem Post and picked up across the country by papers subscribing to the Associated Press.(27) This stunning expression of Presidential intimacy with the chief lobbyist for a foreign government was "benignly" garbed in dispensational Christian images, but the political overtones could not be missed.


In May 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu narrowly defeated Shimon Peres and the Likud Party returned to control the Knesset and the Prime Minister's office. During his years as Israel's representative at the United Nations and in other posts, Netanyahu had endeared himself to the Christian "right," having been a regular speaker on the "Prayer Breakfast for Israel" circuit and similar venues. He had learned from his Likud mentors, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, that outside the U.S. government itself, the Christian "right" represented the largest potential political base for Israel and an untapped reservoir of financial support. Within a few months of the Israeli election, the Netanyahu government convened the Israel Christian Advocacy Council in conjunction with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. Seventeen American Evangelical and fundamentalist leaders were flown to Israel for an October 1996 tour of the Holy Land plus a conference at which they pledged support for what was essentially a Likud agenda. Included in the delegation were the President of the National Association of Evangelicals, Don Argue; Brandt Gustavson, President and Chair of the National Religious Broadcasters (an organization that oversees approximately 90% of the Christian radio and television broadcasting in North America); and Donald Wildmon, President of the American Family Association, a popular fundamentalist crusader against the Hollywood film industry and major television networks. After the Evangelical leaders signed a pledge indicating their desire to insure that "America never, never deserts Israel," Argue added: "We are a people of the book first, and Israel is the land of the book. We represent 49 denominations and some 50,000 congregations and we were taught at our mother's knee to love Israel."(28) Several members of the Advisory Council were involved in the pro-Israel advertisement in the New York Times on 10 April 1997, titled "Christians Call for a United Jerusalem." The ad may have been a direct response to a December 1996 Times advertisement by the mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Churches for Middle East Peace, calling for a "Shared Jerusalem." The Christian Zionist ad made the bold claim that its signatories reach more than 100,000 Christians weekly and went on to call for evangelicals to support the Likud position on Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem. Using several familiar themes of premillennial dispensationalism, the advertisement claimed: "Jerusalem has been the spiritual and political capital of only the Jewish people for 3000 years." It noted Israel's "Biblical" claim as the basis of Israel's claim, citing support from Genesis 12:17, Leviticus 26:4445, and Deuteronomy 7:7-8. The ad was signed by Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting network', Ralph Reed, then Director of the Christian Coalition; Ed McAteer of the Religious Roundtable; Jerry Falwell, among others. Articulating one of Netanyahu's themes in anticipation of pressure from the Clinton Administration, the advertisement asked that Israel "not be pressured to concede on issues of Jerusalem in the final status negotiations with the Palestinians."(29)

In an important new development, the Likud Party learned during 1997 that some American Jews were reducing their usual generous contributions to the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) and other pro-Israel agencies in the United States. Many in the influential Reformed and Conservative Jewish communities had cut back on their giving due in part to the increasing power of the Orthodox parties in Netanyahu's Government and the "second class status" assigned to non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and the United States. Likud then turned to the evangelical and fundamentalist Christian communities to offset the losses. One organization that played a major role in fundraising was the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, led by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of Chicago, which raised over $5 million for the UJA, almost entirely from Evangelicals and fundamentalists.(30) In a separate fundraising initiative, longtime friend of Israel and signator of the "Christians for a United Jerusalem" (CUJ) document, was John Hagee, Pastor of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas (also the mailing address for CUJ). On 4 February 1998, Hagee called a press conference and announced his church was giving over $1 million to Israel, and claimed the money would go to help resettle Jews from the former Soviet Union in the West Bank and Jerusalem (we might add, in exclusively Jewish settlements). Speaking from his dispensationalist perspective, Hagee stated: "We feel like the coming of Soviet Jews to Israel is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy." When asked if he realized his support of Israel's Likud policies were at cross purposes with those of the U.S. government and possibly illegal, Hagee retorted: "I am a Bible scholar and a theologian and from my perspective, the law of God transcends the law of the United States government and the U.S. State Department."(31)

During the Fall of 1997, with international pressure mounting on the Netanyahu administration from the United States and European governments, the Prime Minister's public relations specialists developed another strategy in cooperation with Christian Zionist organizations based in Jerusalem. The initial phase of the strategy appears to have been launched in an 22 October 1997 report on Israeli Radio (Kol Israel) News indicating the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was persecuting local Christians. Two days later the Jerusalem Post published an extensive article citing a new Israeli Government report claiming that "the few Christians remaining in PNA-controlled areas are subjected to brutal and relentless persecution." The article continued: "The report says, 'Christian cemeteries have been destroyed, monasteries have had their telephone lines cut, and there have been break-ins to convents.'" According to the Jerusalem Post article, the Israeli report claimed the PNA "has taken control of the churches and is pressuring Christian leaders to serve as mouthpieces for Yasser Arafat and opponents of Israel." Further, the report claimed that the authority was harassing "Christian pastors and Muslim converts to Christianity." It referred to "one convert in the northern West Bank who was arrested by the PNA Preventive Security agents and has been tortured since then in a PNA prison."(32) A month later U.S. Congressman J.C. Watts (Republican, Oklahoma) reiterated the arguments in the Washington Times, blaming Arafat and the Palestinian National Authority for the Christian exodus, and questioning the $307 million in grants from the United States.(33)

Palestinian Christian leaders were quick to respond. Bethlehem Mayor Hanna Nasser, a Christian, said: "Our churches have complete freedom and I've never heard that they've been under pressure." Lutheran Pastor Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb of Bethlehem challenged the Israeli report as pure propaganda, noting that when Bethlehem was under Israeli occupation his house was robbed in 1991 and his car stolen twice, but "there have been no robberies since the Palestinian National Authority has taken over. On the contrary, there is a greater sense of security now than there was under occupation." As for the claim that cemeteries were vandalized, Rev. Raheb stated that most incidents occurred when Israel controlled Bethlehem and were the acts of Jewish settlers. He noted that recently one vandalization incident occurred by Muslim and Christian youths who were on drugs.(34)

During May 1998, a joint delegation of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU) and Open Doors International, sent a fourteen-member investigating team to study the allegations. The delegation confirmed that the allegations of persecution by the Palestinian National Authority could not be substantiated. After interviewing over sixty spokespersons in Israel and the Palestinian territories, including a variety of Christian leaders, the Director of the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs in the Department of Christian Communities, Uri Mor, and several Christian Zionist leaders, EMEU concluded: "There were isolated incidents of discrimination and increased tension between Christian and Muslim communities in certain areas, but there were no cases that could be characterized as persecution in the territories under the Palestinian National Authority; there were four cases of converts from Islam to Christianity who experienced pressure from their families, communities, and those who had criminal backgrounds received pressure from the Palestinian Authority, but the context and reasons for pressure cannot be construed as persecution; some Christian Palestinians are concerned that if Islamic Law (Shari'a) becomes the law of the Palestinian areas, there may be significant restriction of religious freedom for Christians in the future, but quite the opposite is the case at present; EMEU/Open Doors found "disturbing indications of political motivations behind (the) recent publicity about Christian persecution."(35)

On this point, the investigative team learned that the Christian Zionist group, the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem, cooperated with the office of Israeli Chief Spokesman for the Prime Minister, David Bar-Ilan, to exaggerate and politicize accounts of Christians being persecuted and circulated it to the international press. In addition, a staff member of the United States Consulate in Jerusalem interviewed Uri Mor, Director of the Department of Christian Communities Office for the Israeli Government, who stated the report was intended to be an internal document, but Bar-Ilan's office leaked it to the Christian and secular media. Asked why the Prime Minister's office would do so, Mor noted that Bar Ilan likes to use such information as his "bread and butter" in the Israeli propaganda war against the Palestinian Authority.(36) Clearly, there was no attempt by either the Israeli Government or the Christian Embassy to note the particular criminal status of those claiming to be persecuted, or to distinguish between understandable pressure from families or communities following a conversion. EMEU questioned the motives of both the Christian Embassy and the Israeli Government, wondering if they were designed to discourage growing sympathy for Palestinian Christians while simultaneously seeking to influence the debate on persecution in the United States Congress.

EMEU added that the real issue was the decline of Christians throughout the Holy Land since Israel became a state in 1948 and later took control of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. The report concluded: "EMEU found the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories would be enormously improved by a swift and just peace settlement. If present conditions persist, both Israelis and the Palestinians will suffer while the flow of Christians out of the Holy Land is likely to continue. . . . The Christian community is in danger of diminishing to utter insignificance in the place of its birth. In coming years, will the only worshipers here be foreign visitors? This could happen if hopelessness drags on and there is not a just and durable peace for Israel and the Palestinians."(37) Further, EMEU learned that on 22 May 1998, the Israeli Knesset passed the first of three readings of a strongly worded "antimissionary bill" that would have broad implications on evangelical activities in Israel, including publishing, broadcasting, mailings, or distributing materials. The new bill had the full support of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet, a matter that troubled several Christian Zionist organizations, that told EMEU a few days earlier that they had Netanyahu's guarantee that another anti-missionary bill would be "buried." While some Christian Zionists and other evangelicals are willing to trust Netanyahu to defeat the new legislation, others are not as certain. The new legislation, called the Pinchasi Bill (after the author, Knesset Member Raphael Pinchasi of the Orthodox Shas Party) complicates Netanyahu's relationship with Christian Zionists and may dampen the enthusiastic support of many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians for the Prime Minister.(38)


While there have been signs that the Israeli and American "religious right" organizations have demonstrated signs of self-destruction, there are sufficient indicators that show they will remain important factors in Middle East politics for the immediate future. Clearly, the initial barometer will be the May 1999 Israeli election, followed by the U.S. Presidential election in November 2000. Whatever the results of these two elections, we can be certain that the respective "religious rights" will play significant but not dominant roles in determining their outcome. More important will be the leverage the Christian "right" secures in the House and Senate of the United States and the manner in which they will support the pro-Likud Israeli lobby organizations with reference to such issues as Jerusalem, Israeli military and economic assistance, Israeli settlement and infrastructure expansion, economic assistance to the Palestinian authority, and politicizing the issue of religious freedom.

Those who believe the Christian "right" is losing clout in U.S. politics might consider the following statistics. In 1987, polls indicated that the "right" represented 26% of the total membership of the Republican party, but that percentage has grown to more than 33% in 1999. Even more telling is the fact that the Christian "right" controls GOP organizations in 20 states and are major powerbrokers in at least 12 others.(39) Recognizing that the various Christian "right" political organizations uniformly represent a Likud political orientation, sometimes coordinated by AIPAC's sister organization CIPAC (Christian-Israel Political Affairs Committee), the immediate future of the Christian "right" will be dominated by a Christianized revisionist Zionism. Whether Likud or Labor wins the Israeli elections in May 1999, it is likely that a Likud orientation will prevail in both Houses of the U.S. Congress, thanks in part to the effectiveness of the Israeli lobby and to a lesser extent the undying support they derive from the Christian "right." Additionally, Likud can count on Democratic Party candidate Al Gore to be more sympathetic to their agendas than was Bill Clinton, who generally tended to support the Labor Party line.

However, an emerging trend may become a factor in years to come. An estimated 50 million Evangelical Protestants remain "soft" on the question of Zionism and those under 30 years of age are less influenced by the Christian Zionist world view. Major institutions such as the most influential journal, Christianity Today, has shifted its editorial perspective away from the dispensationalist orientation that has dominated its pages since it was established by the Rev. Billy Graham in the late 1940s. World Vision, the largest Evangelical relief agency and third largest in the world, has become sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people and it supports major projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The educational agency, Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, has had a significant impact on churches and evangelical institutions through the last decade.

These changes are still not visible in the public eye and certainly not on Capitol Hill, but the ground of support for Christian Zionism is slowly shifting. Sadly, it is highly doubtful that the new trends will Affect political change in the Middle East policy of the United States Congress or future presidential administrations in the immediate future.


1. The New York Times, 20 January 1998.

2. "Gingrich: Netanyahu Mistreated," Associated Press, 20 January 1998 (

3. Bernard McGinn, Visions of the End, (New York: Columbia Press, 1979); pp. 1-36.

4. Apocalypticism is the theological term given to hidden signs and events at the end of history. Eschatology is an umbrella term that encompases all theological study of the end of history.

5. Thomas Brightman, Apocalypsis Apocalypseos, (London, 1585; no publisher, available at the British Museum).

6. Sir Henry Finch, The World's Great Restauration or Calling of the Jewes, (London: Edward Griffin for William Bladen, 1621).

7. LeRoy Froom, The Prophet Faith of our Fathers, (Washington, Pa.: Review and Herald Press, 1954); p. 137.

8. Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); p. 19.

9. John Nelson Darby, The Collected Writings of John Nelson Darby, Volume I, Number 1 (Kingston on Thames: Stow Hill Bible and Trust Depot, 1962); pp. 94 ff.

10. Timothy P. Weber in The Variety of American Evangelicalism, Donald Dayton and Robert K. Johnston, Editors (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991); p. 6.

11. George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); p.51.

12. Nahum Sokolow, History of Zionism, Volume I (London: Longman, Green and Co., 1919); p.127.

13. Sokolow, Ibid.

14. Albert M. Hyamson, Palestine Under the Mandate (London: Muthuen & Co. Ltd., 1950); pp. 10 and 12. Note: Shaftesbury's phrase was slightly different: "A country of no people for a people with no country."

15. See Philip Guedalla, Napoleon and Palestine (London: G. Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1925), pp. 48-9; and see also Christopher Sykes, Two Studies in Virtue (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953).

16. Sykes, ibid.

17. L. Nelson Bell, Editorial, Christianity Today Magazine, July, 1967.

18. Washington Post, 23 March 1981.

19. Advertisement: Christian Science Monitor, 3 November 1977.

20. William Claibourne "Israelis Look on U.S. Evangelicals as Potent Ally," Washington Post, 23 March 1981.

21. Claibourne, ibid

22. Grace Halsell, Prophecy and Politics (Westport, Connecticut: Lawrence Hill & Company, 1986); p. 74.

23. Ibid., pp. 75-76.

24. Kathy Sawyer, "Falwell Attempts to Mend Interfaith Fences," Washington Post, 4 April 1985.

25. Senator Helms was outraged by Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: "Shut down relations. Just shut off relations." After considerable AIPAC and Moral Majority financial support and politicking, Helms won a close Senate race for his North Carolina seat in 1984, and has been a staunch pro-Israel backer ever since. See Sol Stern, "The Neo-Conning of the Jews," The Village Voice, 4 September 1984.

26. Author's copy of the 19 March 1984 program and invitation list from The White House, Washington, D.C.

27. Larry Jones and Gerald T. Shepphard, TSF Bulletin, September-October 1984.

28. United Methodist Review, 29 November 1996.

29. "Christians Call for a United Jerusalem," Paid Advertisement, The New York Times, 18 April 1997.

30. Jerusalem Post, (Internet Version:, 13 November 1997.

31. Religious News Service, 6 February 1998.

32. "Christians Persecuted by PA," The Jerusalem Post (International Edition), 1 November 1997.

33. J.C.Watts, "Yasser Arafat vs. Christians," The Washington Times, 4 December 1997.

34. Muna Hamzeh-Muhaisen, "Christians in Bethlehem: Where is the Discrimination?" Palestine Report, 31 October 1997.

35. Press Release: Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, Jerusalem, 24 May 1998 (available from EMEU, 3225 W. Foster Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60625).

36. "The Myth of Christian Persecution," LAW-The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, May 1998, p.3.

37. EMEU Press Release, Ibid.

38. "Anti Missionary Bill Passes First Knesset Hurdle," (Jerusalem Post, 21 May 1998.

39. "How Fundamentalists Learned to Thrive," The Christian Century, (22-30 September 1999), page 872.

Donald Wagner is the Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Associate Professor of Religion at North Park University, Chicago, and National Director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding.
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Author:Wagner, Donald
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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