To many Israelis, the world of Christian Zionism is largely hidden from public view. But a new report out from the Israeli progressive think tank, Molad, aims to change that, casting a bright light on the oddly symbiotic alliances between Christian Zionist activists and Israeli leaders. The investigative report, released Friday, documents these relationships, as well as those between Christian Zionists and the settler movement, which benefits from their largesse.
Christian Zionists, says Liat Schlesinger, Molad’s researcher for the report, are routinely referred to in the Israeli press as “Christians who love Israel.” But that description obscures their theology. “It doesn’t allow a critical look into their theology, what is their purpose, what is their interest in Israel,” she said in an interview in which she shared many of the report’s findings.
The term Christian Zionist, said Schlesinger, “is very confusing” to Israelis. “What we’re showing in the report is they’re not Zionists if they wish for the destruction of the Israeli state. Zionism is one thing and their religious motive is something else.”
The narrative is familiar to Americans who follow religion, politics, and the Middle East: Christian Zionists support Israel. When in Washington, they will frame this support—frequently described as biblically mandated love—in political and policy terms, such as opposing a nuclear deal with Iran or negotiations with the Palestinians. (Or, more recently, supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming speech to a joint session of Congress.) But at church, on religious television, in books, and at religious conferences, this love for Israel and Jews is unabashedly presented as biblical prophecy come to life, culminating in the return of Christ and the conversion or elimination of Jews.
While Christian Zionists (and Messianic Jews, and evangelicals who straddle both) remain largely outside the orbit of the average Israeli, these activists from around the world have made themselves crucial allies to Israeli lawmakers. The Molad report, which is currently available only in Hebrew, aims to show Israelis the role Christian Zionists play in the country’s politics, and how Israeli politicians dismiss violent end-times prophecies as mild theological differences among friends. Schlesinger noted that the Israeli right wing often accuses the left of accepting foreign money, but there is “secret funding that comes to right-wing parties from evangelicals that is completely hidden from the public.” [UPDATE: an English translation of the executive summary is now available.]
Mining public documents, Schlesinger uncovered at least 69 trips Knesset members took around the world—including some to attractive destinations seemingly divorced from the turmoil of the Middle East, like the Caribbean, Barbados, and Rome—paid for by Christian Zionist organizations, and one, even, by the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America. Many of the Christian Zionist organizations are hardly household names, even in the U.S., highlighting that many small, obscure Christian Zionist organizations together make up a subculture invisible to Israelis yet deeply influential to their country’s politics.
While U.S. ethics requirements mandate that members of Congress disclose the funders and purpose of foreign travel, including specific locations visited and meetings held, Israeli law only requires disclosure of the funder and destination. (Because of those requirements in the U.S., the American public can discover more details about Christian Zionist-funded trips American lawmakers take to Israel and the occupied territories.)
In turn, Schlesinger said, MKs provide the flourishing Christian tourism business in Israel with special treatment: VIP meetings with members of the Knesset, officially sanctioned awards to prominent Christian Zionists, MK endorsements of the Christian ministries, useful for the ministries’ fundraising activities, and Christian worship services featuring Israeli soldiers, and even one in the Knesset. Israeli MKs look the other way when Christian Zionists attempt to import the American culture wars, by opening crisis pregnancy centers or bringing anti-gay rhetoric to Israel.
The Israeli right wing, said Schlesinger, “is promoting the idea that Christian Zionists love Israel, so it’s free. We take their money and we don’t convert.” But the Molad report is “showing that they are trying to influence Israeli society and import their agenda.”
While the prospect of evangelicals influencing Israeli law or policy on LGBT issues or abortion seems remote, their influence on settlements, the occupation, and opposition to a peace deal with the Palestinians has a far more profound impact. (Christian Zionists, for example, are big supporters of continued settlement growth and of what they call an “undivided Jerusalem,” which would negate the possibility of a Palestinian capital there and thus a two-state solution.)
Schlesinger said the relationship between Christian Zionists and settlers has also spawned a shadow tourism industry in the occupied territories. Evangelicals, said Schlesinger, enjoy visiting the West Bank, “they like to come to Ariel and ride in armored cars.” American evangelicals harvest grapes for wine made in the West Bank, and they fund a range of services from kindergartens and libraries to security equipment.
The Molad report has already been featured in an Israeli television broadcast focusing on the relationships between Christian Zionists and Israeli and settler leaders. In that report, Oded Revivi, mayor of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, is shown saying he has met Christian Zionists that make him feel like to the left by comparison.
The reporter asks Revivi if rabbis would say not to take money from Christian Zionists. Most, says Revivi, advise taking it. Money, he says, has power.