There is a widespread assumption that evangelical Protestant support for Israel is purely theological. But this assumption overlooks the many other reasons why evangelicals and other Americans feel an affinity with the Jewish state.
It is true that the Bible weighs heavily in evangelical thinking. Most evangelicals, like most Christians of other traditions, believe that God’s covenant with Abraham and his posterity remains valid. Part of that covenant is God’s promise that “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3). For many evangelicals, that verse is sufficient mandate for them to favor Israel over its antagonists. Some also resort to speculative interpretations of end-times prophecies to justify siding with Israel (pp.12-14).
But one does not have to decode obscure visions of Ezekiel and Daniel in order to arrive at a pro-Israel position. There is no need for special revelation. One can look at evidence that is plain for all to see.
Israel is a unique entity in the Middle East. Small in area and population, it preserves a minority people that has a continuous history reaching back almost 4,000 years. The Jews have survived repeated waves of imperial conquest, campaigns of forced assimilation, and bouts of genocidal persecution—in the Middle East and elsewhere—and the state of Israel has become their haven. To the Jewish population long resident in Palestine have been added refugees from Jewish communities around the region, in Europe, the former Soviet Union, and even Africa.
Israel stands as an example of multiculturalism. In a region where so many regimes attempt to enforce uniformity—only one ethnicity acknowledged, one language spoken, one form of religion practiced—Israel hosts a vibrant variety. Walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, one witnesses religious observances representing different schools of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Jews hold the upper hand politically and economically; however, Arabs and Muslims are freer to express themselves inside Israel than in all the surrounding nations.
Israeli society leads the region in educational attainment, cultural creativity, technological innovation, and balanced economic development. The Middle East would be poorer without the diversity and dynamism of Israel. But it would benefit far more if Israel’s neighbors would all accept its existence and open normal relations.
Israel’s strategic objective is precisely that: to live securely, at peace with its neighbors. It does not seek to destroy any of the surrounding states. Israeli governments of both the left and the right have affirmed Palestinian self-determination.
By contrast, the strategic objectives of Israel’s neighbors are more ambiguous or even sinister. The objective that was pursued through four wars, from 1948 through 1973, was the destruction of the Jewish state. Two nations, Egypt and Jordan, subsequently signed peace treaties with Israel. But several other important actors—Syria, Iran, the Hezbollah movement that dominates Lebanon, the Hamas movement that rules Gaza—remain sworn to annihilate the Jewish state. They continue to sponsor terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.
In the face of such hostility, Israel has earned the sympathy of most U.S. Christians. They also identify with the Jewish state because it shares common ideals. Israel is a liberal democracy like the United States, with majority rule alongside recognized rights for minorities. It is the only country in the Middle East that the human rights group Freedom House rates as “free.”
Israeli elections have resulted in repeated peaceful transfers of power between different political coalitions. The country’s independent judiciary has acted to rein in government excesses and abuses on numerous occasions. The government is also responsive to public opinion, which is expressed vigorously in a free press. Advocates for Palestinian rights criticize the government directly and frequently. None of these liberties is so readily available to residents of the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring countries. Potential dissidents there need to watch their words carefully.
Israel and the United States share common enemies. The nations and groups vowing to crush the Jewish state—Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas—are also virulently anti-American. For militant Islamists, Israel is the “near enemy” and America the “far enemy.” The terrorist tactics targeted against Israel have likewise been employed against the United States. It makes sense that the two democracies should cooperate in facing these common threats.
Nevertheless, support for Israel does not have to mean lack of sympathy for the Palestinians. They have suffered from the Israeli military presence on the West Bank and in Gaza. That presence constricts the Palestinian economy and curtails the civil liberties of individual Palestinians. Most seriously, it deprives Palestinians of the right to live under a sovereign government of their own choosing.
The military occupation of the West Bank, against the will of the inhabitants, is a standing contradiction to Israel’s democratic values. Israeli governments of various hues have recognized that contradiction. They have promised to pursue a “two-state solution” allowing a Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel. U.S. Christian friends of Israel can hold Israeli officials to that promise, and encourage them and their Palestinian counterparts to make the compromises necessary to fulfill the promise.
One of the main sticking points, however, lies on the Palestinian side. Israeli and American negotiators have found it hard to pin down Palestinian leaders to a commitment to live at peace with the Jewish state. Palestinians have been ill served by their own leaders, and other Arab leaders, who have backed away from peace agreements that might have eased the people’s plight. Instead such leaders have chosen to whip up hostility against the Jews—often as a diversion from the failures of their own regimes—and perpetuate the confrontation.
A major factor in this deadlocked situation is the lack of democracy among the Palestinians and in the other Arab states. Without democracy, it is much more difficult to have leaders with the credibility and the accountability to make peace. U.S. Christians can support Israel because it is a democracy that has produced leaders like Yitzhak Rabin with a vision for peace. At the same time, they can encourage democratic development in the Arab world in hopes that it too can bring forth leaders able to make peace.
This pro-democracy and pro-Israel stance is consonant with biblical teachings calling Christians to be peacemakers and champions of justice. But that stance does not have to rest on disputed interpretations of Old Testament prophecies. It stands on its own merits and on the evidence.
Alan F. H. Wisdom is a writer and an elder in the PC(USA). He is also a member of the Theology Matters Board of Directors.