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an unholy alliance

Netanyahu & the American Evangelicals: 'They wage war in our country, then celebrate Christmas'

Hannah McCarthy looks at the strong ties between Netanyahu’s government in Israel and American Evangelicals, while criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza grows elsewhere.

LAST UPDATE | 21 Dec 2023

THIS YEAR IN the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, the manger features a baby Jesus surrounded by rubble to reflect the devastation in Gaza.

The Church’s pastor, Reverend Munther Isaac, said that the manger scene was “inspired by the difficult images we see on a daily basis on our television screens of children being pulled from under the rubble in Gaza.”

The reverend says “If Christ were to be born today he would be born under the rubble and Israeli shelling.”

But Evangelical Christians are by no means united in this view of the attacks in Gaza that are believed to have killed over 18,000 people since the start of the war on 7 October, when Hamas launched its surprise attack on Israel, killing around 1,200 people.

The Evangelical base

In particular, American Evangelicals have been ardent supporters of Israel, with 90 prominent pastors and leaders issuing ”An Evangelical Statement in Support for Israel,” which cited “just war” theory and affirmed “Israel’s right and duty to defend itself against further attack” in the aftermath of the Hamas atrocities.

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Evangelicals from the US have developed close ties with the government of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Tánaiste Michéal Martin visited Israel in November, Mike Evans, a controversial American Evangelical pastor who was visiting the warring country at the same time, was invited by the Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to join the Irish delegation’s tour of Sderot and Kibbutz Be’eri, two Israeli communities which were both brutally targeted by Hamas on the 7 October.

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A prominent Evangelical leader who describes himself as a Christian Zionist, Evans has championed both Donald Trump and Netanyahu. The visiting Irish delegation did not appear to be aware that Evans would join the tour of southern Israel or who he was.

At the end of Micheál Martin’s tour of Kibbutz Be’eri, I spoke with Evans who said his life’s work was “combating anti-Semitism and mobilising support for the Jewish people with the Christian Zionists of the world.”

He told me he was eager to go into Gaza with the Israeli military “to get the truth out” and that in kindergartens in Israel, children are taught to “celebrate life,” while in Gaza children are “educated and trained to hate and kill Jews.” The pastor said Palestinians had told him that they believed that Jewish people were born with “tails and horns” and “invented the diseases of the world.”

Evans has a history of controversial statements and was widely criticised in 2021 for the language he used when criticising political opponents of Netanyahu in a blog post where he wrote:

“If they keep up this pathetic, political striptease act, this theatre of the absurd, I’ll spend the rest of my life fighting them all,mobilising millions of evangelicals to join me in the fight. I understand how the Holocaust happened. German Jews were busy insulting each other, drunk on the wine of pride. They did not see the smoke of Auschwitz rising because they were more German than they were Jews.”

In an op-ed for Haaretz, Joshua Shanes described this language as “a classic anti-Jewish attack, that Jews betrayed their identity and mission as Jews and dared to believe that they belonged in their diaspora nation.”

Batting for Bibi

Nevertheless, Evans remains close to Netanyahu’s right-wing government, which has become increasingly reliant on American evangelicals as American Jews become more critical of his government’s divisive and authoritarian policies. In September, Evans led an online conference with Netanyahu and 400 influential Christian leaders.

“The prime minister has great admiration for the Evangelicals of the United States in light of what they achieved for the State of Israel,” Evans told The Jerusalem Post and added that initiatives of the Trump administration, such as the Abraham Accords which normalised relations in 2020 between Israel, UAE, Morocco and Bahrain were the result of support from Evangelical Christians in the US.

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Evangelical Christians are not a fringe group in the US, where they make up around a quarter of the population and mostly support the Republican Party.

They are politically active and have a high voter-turn rate in elections which gives them an effective veto on the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. 

Without the support of Evangelicals, three-times divorced Donald Trump, who some of them believe was divinely chosen, could not have secured the White House in 2016. After the outbreak of the war, a group of evangelical Christians travelled from America to the occupied West Bank to support Israeli settlers, who have forced more than 1,000 Palestinians to leave their homes since 7 October.

When I emailed Hayovel, one of the Christian Zionist organisations that supports these types of ‘volunteer’ trips, they replied: “Unfortunately our cowboys have stopped taking interviews in order to better focus on their work here.”

Deeply held beliefs 

Some American evangelical Christians believe that god has given Israel to the Jewish people as their homeland, while others view the existence of a Jewish state in the holy land as part of a biblical reading that prophesies that Jesus will return to earth during a battle that will end the world as we know it and usher in a new kingdom that will last 1,000 years. A Pew survey in December 2022 found that 63% of evangelicals believe humanity is “living in the end times”.

In the US Congress in DC, over 100 members, mostly from the Republican Party, broadly identify as evangelical. During the annual Republican Jewish Coalition in October, the new US House of Representatives speaker Mike Johnson, who is an evangelical Christian, said that under his leadership, the US Congress would stand by Israel, citing his Christian faith and belief that “God will bless the nation that blesses Israel.”

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While there has been growing opposition to continued US funding for the Ukraine war from Republicans, a bill to provide Israel with $14.3bn in military aid secured almost unanimous support from Republican members of the house last month.

At a “March for Israel” event in Washington DC, Congressman Johnson quoted Netanyahu who called the conflict between Israel and Hamas “a fight between good and evil, between light and darkness, between civilisation and barbarism.”

Johnson added that the growing international pressure for an Israeli ceasefire in Gaza was “outrageous”.

“For me, it’s obvious that to support the State of Israel through Christian theology is wrong — to support oppression, to support occupation is not the will of god,” says Marah Sarji a Palestinian Ph.D. student researching theology at Princeton University in the US.

Sarji is from Nazareth, the largest Arab-majority city in Israel, where she grew up in a Christian evangelical community, but since she moved to the US she’s stopped identifying as evangelical. Instead, she refers to herself as “interdenominational,” a common term used by former evangelicals in America.

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Marah believes American evangelical theology “weaponises the bible against Palestinians, and against us as Christians, who are basically the descendants of the first church.”

“It’s really a question of what is this god that they believe in. It doesn’t make sense to me that I believe in a loving just god and they believe in a god that would allow and support genocide to happen,” says Sarji. “I honestly don’t think we believe in the same god.”

Referencing a quote from Reverend Isaac in Bethlehem, Sarji says: “these Evangelicals wage war in our country and they celebrate Christmas at the same time — I don’t think that’s what Christianity is.”