The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Christian Zionist philo-Semitism is driving Trump’s Israel policy

The administration acts like ‘supporting Israel’ means letting it do whatever it wants

President Trump speaks during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office on Monday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Trump will join Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday to announce his Middle East peace plan. The announcement comes not long before Israel’s third election in the past year, on March 2. Details of the plan haven’t been released yet, but most analysts expect it to continue Trump’s policy of recognizing Israeli annexation of territories it occupied in 1967, while excluding Palestinians from the process entirely.

This is no surprise: The evangelical-heavy Trump administration is the most fervently Christian Zionist government the United States has ever had, making it a driving force of pro-Israel attitudes in Washington. U.S. support for Israel these days doesn’t mean just championing the idea of a Jewish state — it means supporting the idea of Greater Israel, the Israeli far right’s dream of a single state. The United States hasn’t merely dropped the support for a two-state solution, or stopped condemning Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. U.S. policy has shifted to endorsing the reality that Netanyahu’s right-wing government has put on the ground: an ethno-national state where Israel retains territories it occupied in the 1967 war, Jews are the sole sovereign from the river to the sea, Palestinians are denied self-determination and international law has no currency.

Many of the evangelical Christians whose votes Trump courts believe in the notion that God promised the land to Jews and that the return of Jewish rule in the Holy Land will bring about the Rapture and Second Coming, after which Jesus will restore a divine kingdom in which all Jews either become Christians or perish. Evangelicals comprise Trump’s core base, with more than 80 percent of white evangelicals having voted for him in 2016. (They also make up a quarter of the overall U.S. population, though obviously not all evangelicals share Trump’s views on the Middle East.) Evangelical leaders are regular visitors in the White House.

The influence of evangelical Christianity on U.S. policy toward Israel is a practical expression of philo-Semitism, which is the flip side of anti-Semitism; it involves having an affinity for Jews, as opposed to hating them. Evangelical adoration for Israel — and Israel’s reciprocal efforts to join forces with evangelicals in the United States — obviously predates Trump. Israel made the decision long ago to embrace evangelical support. In the 1980s, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin made the strategic decision to tap into the religious right in America, which he presciently realized was a burgeoning power base. At the time, the Rev. Jerry Falwell was organizing evangelicals as a political force in the Republican Party through his founding of the religious, hyper-conservative Moral Majority, which Begin declared in 1981 to be a great friend of Israel. Both Falwell and the Rev. Billy Graham — the prominent evangelical leader who played a pivotal role in fostering Judeo-Christian relations in the United States after World War II — were advisers to President Ronald Reagan, who ushered evangelical politics squarely into Washington.

Trump sees all U.S. Jews as Israelis because his Christian Zionist allies do, too

This is today most evident in the work of Christians United for Israel, the largest pro-Israel lobby in the United States, boasting 8 million members. Since 2006, it has been advocating for continued military aid to Israel, settlement expansion and Israeli war with Iran. CUFI director John Hagee, who said at the annual AIPAC conference in 2007, “The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened,” had been pushing for the U.S. Embassy to move to Jerusalem for years before Trump finally did it; Hagee delivered the closing remarks at the embassy’s relocation ceremony in 2018. Another evangelical pastor, Robert Jeffress, who led opening prayers at the ceremony, has said Jews, Mormons and Muslims are bound for hell. Trump sent five senior officials to CUFI’s annual conference last summer.

Trump’s administration has combined evangelical power with support from conservative Jews who support Netanyahu’s program, among them senior adviser Jared Kushner and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are both evangelical Christians, and their support for Israeli control over the West Bank appears part and parcel of their belief that Israel’s borders should expand across the ancient Davidic Kingdom. “We stand with Israel because we cherish that ancient promise that those who bless her will be blessed,” Pence said at last year’s CUFI conference.

Trump still appears to believe that all Jews are really Israelis

For decades, American support for Israel as a matter of foreign policy was mostly steered by geopolitical and economic considerations. But under Trump, it appears far more driven by Christian, Philo-Semitic views that the distinct role of Jews in the biblical land of Israel is paramount. The administration made this clear when it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital early on in Trump’s term, then recognized Israeli annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights.

In a recorded keynote speech to a Jerusalem policy conference this month hosted by the right-wing Kohelet Policy Forum, Pompeo reaffirmed a new policy, first announced in November, that the United States has ditched the 1978 State Department’s Hansell Memorandum that deemed Israeli settlements illegal. “We’re recognizing that these settlements don’t violate international law,” he said.

Trump and his allies have also extended this approach to U.S. domestic politics, fostering a climate where opposition to Israeli settlements — once a mainstream American position — is seen as dangerous, while being a pro-Israel hawk provides the veneer of being a friends to Jews. There was the executive order Trump signed in December, which codifies the definition of anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israel’s model of governance and, in practice, grants the Department of Education more tools with which to crush Palestinian advocacy in educational institutions. This month, South Dakota became the 28th state to pass legislation designed to punish companies or individual contractors who boycott Israel — without making any distinction between settlements in the West Bank and Israel proper. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) introduced legislation last week that classifies the United Nations as pro-boycott because it maintains a database of companies that do business in Palestinian territories. This mostly seems to be a solution in search of a problem: More than half of the country hasn’t even heard of the boycott movement, according to recent polling by the University of Maryland. But to evangelical Christian voters who support Israel at all costs, it’s a sign that Republicans are doing the right thing.

Last month in Tel Aviv, I heard Elan Carr, the State Department’s special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, boast to a group of Israelis and Americans that the United States is “still the most Philo-Semitic country in world history” — as if that’s a good thing. Carr said that to combat anti-Semitism, the United States must “educate on philo-Semitism,” which essentially means, let’s show people how great Jews are so they can go from hating them to loving them. This was astonishing to me because philo-Semitism is not part of everyday discourse; not many people know what it is. No politicians who I am aware of has ever employed the term, because the concept is often considered a form of anti-Semitism.

Trump keeps pushing anti-Semitic stereotypes. But he thinks he's praising Jews.

Conservatives — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — have taken to framing support for Israel as essential to protecting Jewish existence and fighting against anti-Semitism. A new bill in Congress by Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) urges public schools to teach “the historic importance of the Jewish state of Israel” as part of an effort to combat anti-Semitism. A Jewish teacher at an elite private school in New York City was just fired for expressing anti-Zionist sentiments. During a recent march against anti-Semitism in New York City, Anti-Defamation League director Jonathan Greenblatt said “those who deny that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism are contributing to the problem” and New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, perfectly complementing him, declared, “I am a Jew because of students across this country who refuse to be smeared and denigrated because of who they are, who are standing up against humiliation, pressure, and abuse to affirm the justness of Zionism.” But among the loudest voices affirming the “justness of Zionism” in the United States these days aren’t Jews; they’re evangelical Christians in the Trump administration.

The great sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argued that philo-Semitism and anti-Semitism both fall under “allosemitism”: literally Othering the Jew. He defined it not as resentment of what is different, which is xenophobia, but rather of what defies order and clear categories. In 1997, he wrote, “The Jew is ambivalence incarnate. And ambivalence is ambivalence mostly because it cannot be contemplated without ambivalent feeling: it is simultaneously attractive and repelling.”

This is an apt description of how the Trump administration relates to Jews and Israel. “You have people — Jewish people — and they are great people and they don’t love Israel enough,” Trump told a room full of ultraconservative Jewish supporters at the Israel-American Council conference (funded by Sheldon Adelson, a big donor to Trump) last month. This is precisely that ambivalence: the love and hate, admiration and contempt. This is the mainstreaming of philo-Semitism, and as the Trump administration continues to normalize Israel’s occupation regime, we can expect the tokenization and instrumentalization of Jews to continue being normalized, as well.

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