Little Israel has always been the protégé of big America. As early as 1818, well before the birth of the Zionist Movement (1896), American President John Adams wrote: ” I really wish the Jews again in Judea as an independent nation”.
Indeed, the beginning of the (almost) unconditional US support for the Jewish state dates back to the 1960s. It was President John F. Kennedy who initiated the political-military alliance between the two countries (1961), considering it as a ‘special relationship’ (definition by Golda Meir), a commitment he considered to be moral as well as national.
In 1987, the US granted Israel the status of ‘non-NATO ally’. This status responds to the strategic interests of the superpower, aimed at balancing Russian influence in the Middle East.
The United States played an active role in promoting peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (Camp David Agreements of 1978 and 2000, Oslo I Agreements of 1993). In this regard, I refer the reader to my article “The lost opportunities“. Their intermediation has been repeatedly criticized on the charge of having interpreted mainly Israeli needs. Trump’s peace plan (2019), drawn up without the involvement of the Palestinian side, certainly represents the most striking example of this bias. However, it should be remembered that, apart from the Trump parenthesis, the United States has always judged Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal, considering them as an obstacle to the peace process.
For 60 years, active solidarity with Israel has remained a bipartisan constant of American politics. It is expressed by political, economic and military means. In this article, I focus on a lesser known topic concerning the impact of religious faith on the relations between the two countries.
Support on a religious basis
Americans are particularly religious (more than a third say they attend religious services at least weekly).
Religious belief plays an important role in the privileged relationship between the United States and Israel. To understand this connection, it is useful to take a look at the subdivision of religions in the US.
White evangelicals form a solidly republican group that favors conservative candidates. As research from the University of Maryland1 has shown, their fideistic support for Israel strongly influences this party’s pro-Israeli policy. In this regard, former Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said that “Israel should devote more energy to reaching the ‘more passionate’ American evangelicals than it instills to convince Jews, who are too often critical of our policy”2.
However, this support could decrease because, according to a survey by the University of North Carolina, it appears that, in recent years, young evangelists are much less inclined to support Israel (34% in 2021 compared to 75% in 2018)3.
The question therefore arises as to why the Evangelicals support Israel in such an unconditional way. We find the answer in a LifeWay survey4 which, in 2017, found that 80% of American Evangelicals see the birth of the State of Israel as a precondition for the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of Christ’s return. A conviction particularly rooted in the evangelical movement of Zionist Christians.
Interesting in this regard is the article by Giorgio Bernardelli in La Stampa5, written the day after Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (2019). The author reports the statements of John Hagee, “[…] founder and reference pastor of Cornestone Church, a mega-church in San Antonio, Texas. A current rooted in the Bible Belt, the deep America in which ‘The Donald’ has built up his success; but also a very present voice in that media galaxy of which the Christian Broadcasting Network of the television preacher Pat Roberson is the leader ”. Bernardelli continues: “Hagee was among the first to comment enthusiastically on Donald Trump’s move last night. As soon as the declaration with the “official recognition” of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel arrived, John Hagee had his video-comment spread on social networks: President Trump has kept his promise, he has entered political immortality. What he did today will be celebrated forever. And to top it off later he tweeted: There is hope for a better future in Christ”.
Another very active pro-Israeli religious group is gathered in the Southern Baptist Churches (about 11 million followers). Despite the name, in doctrine and practice they are Evangelicals, in that they reject baptism at birth because they are convinced of the need for an active personal conversion.
Compared to the Evangelicals, American Jews are far less enthusiastic about Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. A 2019 Gallup poll6 reports that Jews, while predominantly loyal to Israel, vote in favor of the Democratic party (65%). It concludes that “It’s important to recognize that Jews represent quite a small proportion of the U.S. population and voters, making it unlikely that their vote will make a significant difference in the presidential election”.
Also the political scientist Stephen M. Walt, in an article published in 2019 on FP (Foreign Policy)7, underlines that the majority component of the pro-Israel lobby is made up of Christians, in particular Christians of evangelical faith. Walt also notes that “there are many people in the U.S. Jewish community who are critical of Israel and its policies. For this reason, using terms such as ‘Jewish lobby’ to talk about pro-Israel groups is both inaccurate and inevitably conjures up dangerous stereotypes”.
Outside of Uncle Sam’s strategic interests in the Middle East, the American-Israeli friendship is supported not so much, as is commonly believed, by the Jewish lobby but by American lobbies and public opinion rooted in the religious beliefs of evangelically-oriented Christians. Strangely enough, in this manner, the main religion of a superpower supports the fate of a tiny distant country, moreover, with a different religion.
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- Shibley Telhami – As Israel increasingly relies on US evangelicals for support, younger ones are walking away: What polls show, 2021
- Jacob Magid – Dermer suggests Israel should prioritize support of evangelicals over US Jews – The Times of Israel, 2021
- Jacob Magid – Support for Israel among young US evangelical Christians drops sharply — survey – The Times of Israel, 2021
- LifeWay Research – Evangelical Attitudes Toward Israel Research Study, 2017
- Giorgio Bernardelli – “Gerusalemme capitale, la vittoria dei cristiani sionisti” – La Stampa, 2017
- Gallup – American Jews, Politics and Israel (2019)
- Stephen M. Walt – How (and How Not) to Talk About the Israel Lobby – FP (Foreign Policy), 2019