As Israel and Hamas exchanged fire in May, most American pastors largely ignored the conflict in their public messages. This quietude, in what’s been a traditionally stronghold of support for Israel, would have been unthinkable a few years ago and is a victory for left-wing activists who have been campaigning against Christian Zionist teaching for the better part of two decades.
“Perhaps the silence can be explained by media confusion, fear, and also the funding of curious ‘faith’ groups that intentionally weaken Christian and Jewish support of Israel,” said Kelly Kullberg, editor and co-author of the best-seller Finding God at Harvard, citing the more than 10-to-15-year sustained campaign and growing influence of such groups that’s pulled support away from Israel.
For evangelical and conservative Christians who interpret the Bible literally, Christian Zionist belief means that the promises of the Holy Land to the Jews play a critical role in the view of end times.
While the city of Jerusalem is not only revered as the place where Jesus preached, died and was resurrected, it’s also a city to ultimately be controlled by the Jewish people where Christ will return to Earth prior to the 1,000-year reign. This isn’t just an end-of-the-world scenario, but a vindication of their faith.
That’s as Israel views all of Jerusalem as its eternal and indivisible capital while the Palestinians want the eastern section as a capital of a future state.
The latest conflict between Israel and Hamas lasted nearly two weeks and left more than 250 people dead and resulted in widespread devastation to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Since the recent cease-fire was announced, tensions have flared up in the United States with assaults occurring to Jewish Americans in several cities.
While Washington has supported the Israeli government and its long-standing battle with the people of Palestine over land and its right to defend itself, the Biden administration in April announced it would send $235 million in economic and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, reversing the Trump administration’s decision to cut funds.
Still, it’s the continued effort by nonprofits describing themselves as pro-peace groups that both Christian leaders and academics attribute as responsible for weakening support for Israel, especially by the younger generation.
Such organizations include the non-faith-based Telos Group, which describes itself as “a leading organization of America’s emerging pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-American, pro-peace movement,” the self-described American Christian social justice group Sojourners, and liberal advocacy group J Street. All are based in Washington, D.C.
According to the right-wing Capital Research Center (CRC) website Influence Watch, Sojourners is “a left-of-center lobbying organization” founded to provide an outlet for left-wing Jews who didn’t feel represented by other Jewish advocacy organizations.
The current story on J Street’s website reads, “American leaders should reaffirm their commitment to Israel’s security and future—while at the same time making absolutely clear that the disastrous, right-wing policies and ideology of the [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu era have put both in terrible jeopardy.”
The group offers a Women’s Leadership Forum that advocates for the role women and civil society can play in peace building and negotiation. That’s while their Young Leaders Network “committed to achieving a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine” features training and monthly meetings with thought leaders and change-makers to build its progressive network and advance its movement in legislative, political and communal areas.
Sojourners is presented as a progressive monthly magazine–online publication that “seeks to inspire hope and build a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world.”
While Newsweek reached out to both organizations, neither returned calls or emails. But to further the point of such advocacy groups’ targeting of younger Jews and Christians, J Street on its 2017 990 tax form described itself as having “promoted meaningful American leadership to reach a peaceful, two-state resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the use of coalition-building, mobilizing public opinion online, engaging younger Jewish Americans and amplifying the public’s voice.”
Other nonprofits with peace-building missions include the Philos Project, which describes “a pluralist Near East based on freedom and the rule of law where nations, tribes, and religious communities can live beside each other as neighbors” and the Reverend Mae Elise Cannon’s Churches for Middle East Peace. On its website, Cannon describes the nonprofit advocacy organization as “a group of more than 30 church denominations and organizations around the United States committed to pursuing security, justice and equality for Palestine, Israel and the broader Middle East.” Cannon said it works to “educate, elevate and advocate” and meets regularly with the White House, senators, congressional representatives, the State Department and Heads of State.
Like Telos, CMEP offers in-person and virtual tours to Israel and Palestine on what it describes as “multi narrative trips,” according to Alison Glick, its director of development and mobilization. Weekly bulletins with Middle East news, advocacy opportunities and summits are also presented.
Hayden Ludwig, the CRC’s senior investigative researcher, said that while these groups portray themselves as conservative, they work to convince evangelical Christians to soften their stance on the Israel situation by spreading the same talking points as left-wing secular groups, even sharing the same set of funders. According to Ludwig, most Americans are unaware of the large network of such social justice groups. (The CRC is a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank that examines how foundations, charities and other nonprofits spend money and get involved in politics and advocacy.)
“When you examine what they preach there’s very little daylight between their beliefs about things like man-made global warming and professional environmentalists on the left,” said Ludwig. “Now they’re turning their deception on the Israel-Palestine conflict to push the agenda of [George] Soros and other liberal elites as ‘biblical’.”
In ancient Greek, the word telos describes a unique purpose or goal that is rooted in a fundamental principle, toward which all intentions and energies are singularly focused. Telos’ executive director and co-founder Todd Deatherage was raised as a Southern Baptist and spent years working in senior governmental positions, serving as chief of staff in the secretary of state’s office of policy planning and in the State Department in George W. Bush‘s administration. Deatherage said it wasn’t until he went on a deeper theological journey as a Christian that he realized that if “he wanted to be pro-Israel, he could only be pro-Palestinian.”
“The old standard talking points are not quite making as much sense any more.… It doesn’t mean they’ve all switched teams—but it’s less zero sum than the ones that have been offered,” said Deatherage, referring to certain traditional Christian belief systems. “Christians are looking for ways to live as peacemakers, to care about and work for justice with an orientation toward healing and reconciliation and that young people and Palestinian Christian voices are an important part of that movement.”
Deatherage also told Newsweek that younger people don’t have the same ideological and theological impediments when taking on a complicated situation like Israel and Palestine that older generations have.
“They’re not trapped in these ideologies that are zero sum and are very much drawn into the human stories and the kinds of approaches that honor human dignity and flourishing,” said Deatherage. “They don’t need everything to be so black and white.”
Deatherage mentioned terms like “zero sum” and “mutual flourishing” repeatedly when explaining the group’s ethos, terms that also appear throughout text on Telos‘ website.
Through its programming and tours of the Holy Land, its mission is to “form communities of American peacemakers across lines of difference and equip them to reconcile seemingly intractable conflicts at home and abroad.” Its strategies are to “immerse” its members through the power of lived experience, to “train” by developing, sustaining and equipping a practitioner network of peacemakers across the U.S., and to “act” by participating in advocacy and organizing work back at home.
Classes like “Israel/Palestine 101” and “Jerusalem Evictions: Tracing the Roots of Escalation” are offered along with webinars and live training sessions with “issue-area experts and international peacemakers.” Online training sessions cover “relational, practical, and communal skills necessary to relentlessly wage peace.” Podcasts on the group’s Telos Channel address “radical peace-making” while an educational platform and community dubbed Telos University is coming soon to serve as a “one-stop shop to learn the complex histories and modern realities” of the places Telos travels.” Organization volunteers “on the front lines of building the peacemaking movement” act as “table hosts” facilitating post-trip gatherings.
Deatherage co-founded Telos in 2009 with Greg Khalil, a lawyer of Palestinian descent who advised Palestinian leadership during peace negotiations throughout the mid-2000s. The group says its pro/pro/pro network has grown to thousands and it has led more than 110 delegations of American leaders to Israel/Palestine with an emphasis on evangelical Christian communities.
From the outside, the organization and its movement have gained a reputation for catering to people of influence, including megachurch leaders and political operatives. For example, in the March/April 2014, issue of Christian pop culture magazine Relevant then–Publisher and CEO Cameron Strang ran a cover story titled “Blessed are the Peacemakers” portraying his own Telos trip to his millennial readership. Author Lynne Hybels, the co-founder of California’s megachurch Willow Creek, contributed to the story.
Telos‘ website also cites dozens of alumni peacemaking projects as well as involvement in 155 congressional districts. Once back home, these ambassadors are to shift conversation in key parts of society. An American Pilgrimage has also been launched along the Gulf Coast so that “communities of peacemakers” might become aligned in their work there while other trips go to places of former conflict including South Africa and Ireland/Northern Ireland. A future tour is planned for Puerto Rico.
“A lot of pastors are trying to make sense of a country that’s deeply polarized and that’s bled into those congregations,” Deatherage said, noting the strength of the growing progressive anti-Israel movement, the broader view toward peace by younger Christians, and the recent movement by more white Americans to ask questions about social justice issues in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. “It’s just one more of those very divided issues and Christians are burdened by that and trying to find ways to deal with that.”
According to a story published in The Times of Israel on May 25, a new survey conducted by the Barna Group administered poll commissioned by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke indicates a sharp drop in support for the Jewish state. In a poll of over 700 evangelical Christians between the ages of 18 and 29, just 33.6 percent said they supported Israel. That’s compared to 69 percent of young evangelicals who said they sided with Israel in a different 2018 survey. Lifeway Research, a polling firm that assists and equips church leaders with insight and advice, found in a December 2017 poll that American evangelicals under 35 are significantly less likely to have a positive view of Israel than their older counterparts. It also found that 66 percent of evangelicals under 35 believe that “Christians should do more to love and care for Palestinian people.”
Still, Christian leaders and educators cite other reasons for a quieter response from American pastors over the latest round of violence in the Middle East. While they note competing news coverage of multiple crises at home (the COVID-19 pandemic, the border patrol crisis and violence in American cities), they also attribute it to a new administration in the White House, one without the enthusiasm and unabashed support for Israel under former President Donald Trump‘s policies.
“There’s this quietude among evangelicals about what to do in the aftermath of the election we just had,” said author Judith Mendelsohn Rood, an emeritus professor of history and Middle East studies at Biola University. “Christians are confused. It’s taken all their energy just to keep their churches going during the pandemic. They want to get people back in singing hymns together—they don’t want to get into politics.”
Rood, a Jewish Christian who consults with different religious and cultural groups and has friends in both Palestine and Israel, agreed that a greater number of younger American Jews and progressive evangelicals are ambivalent toward Israel.
“There’s a lot of concern and confusion about supporting Israel because of what they view as an asymmetric war and what they see as its response toward the Palestinians as draconian and unjust,” she explained.
She also noted that while young people may have noble goals and intentions, their ability to fully comprehend the Middle East is hampered by a lack of both historical knowledge and perspective. Christians, she said, typically study doctrine, the Bible and the history of the Christian church, but have a limited knowledge of world civics, American history and the history of the Jewish people and Israel.
“While a lot of Christians have sympathy for and support Israel being a strong ally and sharing similar values, it isn’t necessarily because of eschatology (the part of theology concerned with the final events of history and ultimate destiny of humanity).”
Still, some leading American evangelicals keep the Christian Zionist view central to their faith and remain vocal about that through media channels.
With more than 10 million members, Pastor John Hagee’s organization Christians United for Israel (CUFI) is the nation’s largest pro-Israel organization providing a national association through which every pro-Israel church, parachurch, organization, ministry or individual in America can speak and act in support of Israel in matters related to the Bible.
During the conflict in May, tens of thousands of Christians across the country held solidarity events supporting Israel during its “CUFI Solidarity Sunday.”
“The American people are standing firmly with Israel as the Jewish state defends its people against an onslaught of terrorism,” Hagee said in a statement announcing the May event and noting Israel’s status as “a democracy, a stalwart U.S. ally, and a beacon of freedom throughout the world.” Hagee and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and North South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley are currently in Israel to meet with senior Israeli government and military officials.
He told Newsweek that contrary to the belief by some, polling data conducted by Pew Research, shows that American Christian support for Israel in general, is extremely high.
“Christians United for Israel has grown at a more rapid pace in recent years than ever before, and our recent Solidarity Sunday brought tens of thousands of Christians together in support of Israel,” he said. “Anyone who thinks Christian support for Israel is on the decline isn’t paying attention.”
But Telos‘ Deatherage described those Christians who only support Israel as a subset “fixated on Israel.”
“Most Christians are not hearing what you hear at a John Hagee church,” said Deatherage, who sees the ongoing conflict as “modern geopolitical” at its core.
“For some, it is central to their identity and at times like this all they’re doing is talking about, but they only live in their own subculture.”
Still, other evangelical leaders like Mike Huckabee and Franklin Graham consistently voice their support of Israel and their condemnation of Hamas militants.
Huckabee tweeted during the conflict, “I remember when Dems were equally if not more supportive of Israel instead of terrorists. As left-wing voices in the Democratic Party rage against Israel—blaming Jews not Hamas for the war—Biden under big pressure to force ceasefire,” citing a news story on allisrael.com.
Pastor Jim Garlow also said, “The leadership of these Muslim groups is the reason for the intense suffering.”
“To be pro-Israel is not to be anti-the Palestinian people, or against the residents of Gaza. Both groups are suffering. But they are not suffering from the Israeli Jews. They are suffering because of the horrific and corrupt leadership of the Palestinian Authority, or Hamas, or Islamic Jihad,” said Garlow.
With his wife Rosemary Schindler Garlow, Garlow runs the Well Versed World, a ministry that brings biblical principles of governance to government leaders and the people who elect them.
Graham recently tweeted, “On May 14, 73 years ago, Israel became an independent nation. They were immediately attacked, and they’re still fighting today. Israel is the only Democracy in the Middle East, and they’ve been America’s closest ally in the region.”
While he noted his appreciation for President Joe Biden “realizing the importance of standing with Israel, even when progressives in the Democratic Party do not agree,” it was reported days later that Secretary of State Antony Blinken continued close consultation with Israel about a potential U.S. return to a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. On May 14, the administration notified Congress it would provide $10 million to Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza and work with “trusted independent parties” to support exchange and reconciliation projects with Israelis. Moving forward, policy decisions will now involve Israel’s new prime minister Naftali Bennet who was sworn in on Sunday as former prime minister Netanyahu ended his reign.
That’s while Hamas is widely seen as funded with money, ammunition and weaponry by Iran.
For his part, Ludwig said one only needs to follow the money to see that “these social justice groups are funded by the same liberal mega-donors (like George Soros‘ Open Society Foundations) as any left-wing activist group working to sway support away from Israel.”
“Other big foundations also bundle money together and make their own grants to such groups—funds that can never actually be traced,” he added.
Although he declined to cite specifics, Deatherage said Telos‘ funding comes from a variety of sources; noting the group works with conservatives, progressives, churches and institutions. He said in a non-pandemic year, most of Telos‘ revenue stems from its programs and trips. “We’re a very lean organization,” said Deatherage, “We’ve never broken $2 million while many evangelical churches have budgets several times more than we have.“
Rood stated matter-of-factly that in general, these different groups with various sources of income are very divisive for evangelicals.
“Right now everything is split between evangelicals supporting Israel and those that aren’t. So everything is politicized,” she said, also noting the increase in violence during the recent conflict that included looting, arson and acting out that took place during Jerusalem Day (Yom Yerushalyim). It’s all behavior that Rood said the postponement of the Palestinian election likely contributed to.
“The thing is that these groups always talk about justice but are never willing to understand the point of view of Israel because they feel that the U.S. supports them,” said Rood.
Kullberg, who is also the founder of the Veritas Forum, a nonprofit that works with Christian students on college campuses, acknowledged “the few loud evangelical voices speaking in support of Israel” but still questioned why there are only a handful of such mouthpieces when Israel and Palestine have recently been involved in the worst Mideast violence since 2014.
“While some loving and brave pastors are speaking and acting, many Christians are concerned about the silence of pastors and leaders in the face of rising infanticide, lawlessness, cancel culture and now the latest 4,000 rockets fired into Israel,” said Kullberg, noting the possibility that people don’t currently know what to speak up against and what to be quiet about.
While Deatherage acknowledged that extremist voices exist on both sides and condemned the firing of rockets by Hamas as “reprehensible,” he said the idea that one group is going to “go away or completely submit themselves to live subservient to another on this small piece of real estate with nearly equal number of Arabs and Jews,” doesn’t make sense.
“Peace—actual peace making—it’s the way we deal with conflict and pursue justice that has an orientation to healing.… It’s imagining no good future for either of these people unless there’s a good future for everyone there,” he told Newsweek.
However, Rood suggested the best approach to such a long-standing and complicated situation might actually be simpler in nature.
“If we talk specifically about this document or policy it’s possible to make headway but it would be best to talk about both suffering and not get sucked into these interest groups that have emerged that are basically lobbyists,” she said. “Over the years, really the most sincere effort is prayer—simple prayers that people pray and they don’t get pulled into all these causes.”
For her part, Kullberg referenced the sentiment of the German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who opposed antisemitism and Hitler, and stands as a hero and example to many Christians.
“It’s a Bonhoeffer moment,” said Kullberg. “In the 1940s, he warned us that ‘silence in the face of evil is, itself, evil.’
“Thankfully, some pastors are speaking clearly,” she said.