Why are American Christians even more fervent than American Jews in their support of Israel, which was founded as a Jewish homeland? The largest pro-Israel group in America, measured by the size of its membersip, is Christian. Christians support Israel for many different reasons—humanitarian ones, like remorse for historic anti-semitism and reparations for the Holocaust; the connection to Judaism through Christianity’s roots in Hebraic tradition; concern about the mistreatment of Christians in Muslim countries in the Middle East; and the role of Israel’s restoration in precipitating the return of Jesus and Armageddon in biblical prophecy. For some, their Zionist sentiments are motivated by their religious beliefs. For others, their religious and Zionist identities stand separately. Yet, despite their stated affinity for Israel, some of the Jewish state’s Christian supporters are anti-semitic. Many cling to a prophetic theology regarding the End Times with a dismal fate for the Jewish people—either Jews must accept Jesus as the messiah on Judgement Day or face eternal separation from God.
HaYovel, Christians United for Israel, and Philos are three of the most prominent among dozens of Christian pro-Israel organizations that have emerged in the last few decades. They represent the diversity of approaches to theology and political strategy in the Chrisitian Zionist space. HaYovel, based in Missouri, sends Christians to volunteer on farms in Israeli settlements, and is literal in its interpretation of biblical scripture and far to the political right. Christians United for Israel, based in Texas, mobilizes Christian groups around domestic political initiatives in support of the Jewish state. The Philos Project, based in New York, and Passages, based in Texas, provide forums for nuanced Christian engagement with Israel and the complicated historical and political realities on the ground.
These three organizations demonstrate that there is not a well-coordinated Christian Zionist force in the United States. Still, the current right-wing Israeli government regards American Christian support for the Jewish state as highly reliable and necessary for the long-term security of the country. The Middle East policy of the Trump administration has catered to the president’s evangelical base and significantly reflects the agendas of Christian Zionist leaders and organizations. In order to accurately analyze the dynamics of the American government’s support for an evermore right-leaning Israeli government, we must look beyond the country’s domestic Jewish backers to the larger, politically active constituency of Christian Zionists.
Christian Zionists, particularly organizations in the prophetic theological camp, have received heightened media attention in recent months. Docaviv, Tel Aviv’s international documentary film festival, featured two films, Till Kingdom Come and Kings of Capitol Hill, that closely examine the views of radical American evangelical supporters of Israel. The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, also reported in September about HaYovel working with government officials to secure 70 three month tourist visas for Christian volunteers to pick grapes at for-profit wineries in Har Bracha, a right-wing settlement in the West Bank located on the ruins of the biblical city of Shechem.
The peak season for harvesting is August through November. Many who registered to become volunteers had been unable to come over during the summer due to the coronavirus, but the organization managed to circumvent the traditional process of acquiring visas with the help of former Likud lawmaker and current presidential candidate Yehuda Glick, who provided HaYovel with the private cell phone number for the director general of the Population and Immigration Authority at the Interior Ministry, Shlomo Mor-Yosef. Mor-Yosef accused the organization of being deceptive in its correspondence with the ministry and omitting the fact that volunteers were evangelical. Most non-citizens have not been able to enter the country since March and kibbutzim do not get to bring volunteers, so the exception unsettled some American Jews.
HaYovel’s founder, Tommy Waller, is a Christian farmer from Tennessee who toured Israel for the first time in 2004. On that trip, he met Nir Lavi, the owner of a vineyard in the Har Bracha settlement in the West Bank. Waller and Lavi discovered the biblical prophecy in Isaiah 61:5, which reads “Foreigners will be your servants. They will feed your flocks and plow your fields and tend your vineyards.” The two men bonded over their passion for farming and the next year, Waller returned with some of his children to be a part of fulfilling that prophecy by helping with the grape harvest and the agricultural restoration of the biblical land of Israel. After returning for a few more seasons, Waller saw that others in his religious community in the United States were interested in volunteering. He founded HaYovel in Missouri in 2006 and has since brought over 3,000 Christian volunteers of all denominations from countries around the world to work on settlement vineyards in the West Bank.
HaYovel is very pro-Israel and even farther to the right than most people on the Israeli right. While many American evangelicals rejoiced at the unveiling of Trump’s peace plan, HaYovel’s founder, Tommy Waller, wrote an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post expressing disappointment, “As we heard the term ‘Palestinian state’ spoken by the president our hearts broke,” he said. “For us, within minutes, the dreams of the prophets had been reduced to Jewish enclaves surrounded by those who desperately want to see Israel and the Jewish people destroyed.”
In an interview with The Politic, HaYovel staff member Cassie Bartell explained HaYovel’s stance on a solution to the conflict: “We don’t think that the land of Israel should be split. This is the land that God gave the Jewish people and that’s who it belongs to. We don’t agree with the two-state solution.” HaYovel believes that the Jewish people have a right to the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, and that those who refer to the land as the “West Bank,” the name given to the land by Jordan, are attempting to “delegitimize Israel’s 4000 year presence in the area.” Many regard Jewish settlements there as a violation of international law, but Tommy Waller’s political agenda does not have much regard for international law. He applauded Trump for recognizing the right of Jews to live in Palestinian East Jerusalem and the West Bank, a move frowned upon by the international community. The pro-Israel and pro-annexation stance of the organzation does not necessarily come out of support for the best interests of Israelis, in fact many Jews are against annexation and most do not hold religous beliefs that call for Jewish control of the West Bank.
For many Christians, their interest in the West Bank is fundamental to their support for Israel. Cassie Bartell explained that HaYovel still works in Judea and Samaria because it “is where 80 percent of our bible took place, so it is the stage of it all and God said that’s where the vines were planted.” Waller cites Jeremiah 31:4 to explain the importance of this geographic location, which reads, “Again you shall plant vineyards On the hills of Shomron; Men shall plant and live to enjoy them.” Prophetic Zionism and Christian support for Israel increased after the Six Day War in 1967 when Israel conquered much of the land where the Bible took place. Many Christians saw this as a significant step toward fulfilling biblical prophecy and precipitating the return of the messiah.
The realization of prophecy is at the core of HaYovel’s organizational approach—program participants, like Bartell, find meaning in being part of what they see as God’s restoration of Israel. She told The Politic, “I was dealing with a lot of personal struggles with my family and seeing God take the land of Israel and make it flourish again made me realize God could do the same for my situation which was desolate.”
Initially, some in Jewish settlements in the West Bank were suspicious of ulterior motives in HaYovel’s volunteer efforts because free Christian labor is often synonymous with conversion efforts. Bartell explained, “Some of the Jewish settlements aren’t so accepting of Christians being here, but Har Bracha is one of them that accepts us with arms open wide.” Volunteering had to be done under the table until five or seven years ago when the chief rabbi of the settlement declared that farmers were permitted to take advantage of the free labor as long as the Jews did not convert. On the HaYovel YouTube channel, Waller renounced supersessionist theology and missionary work dedicated to conversion, and made a plea for other Christians to do the same.
Though the organization takes a stance against attempts to convert Jews, their volunteers’ perceptions of Jews and their theology around the End Times are more complicated. One question on the volunteer FAQ page of HaYovel’s website reads, “If all Jewish people are wealthy, why volunteer for Jewish farmers?,” in an attempt to address one prevalent anti-semitic trope. Prophetic Zionism, a theological interpretation that HaYovel promotes, is vaguely anti-semitic in its stance on the fate of Jews in the End Times. Prophetic Zionists see Jewish control of the land of Israel as an important step toward Armageddon, which is the last battle between good and evil before Judgement Day, and the return of their messiah. Yet, many believe that in the End Times, Jews will have no choice but to accept Jesus as their messiah or else they will burn in hell. Around seven percent of Americans identify as prophetic Christian Zionists and hold these beliefs, which is more than triple the number of Jews in the United States.
In a scene in Maya Zinshtein’s documentary film Till Kingdom Come, Reverend William Bingham of a prophetic Zionist church in Kentucky discusses Jews and Armaggedon. He explains that Jews will “be humbled” in the tribulation and no longer be “arrogant.” This kind of unfavorable depiction of Jews as foolish and arrogant is not uncommon in prophetic Zionist discourse around the End Times. In an interview with Haaretz, Zinshtein described her discomfort with the Kentucky church’s theology about Armageddon and explained that the subjects of her film had “a strange love—they love me just because I’m Jewish. We Jews have a role in their story. We’re the key for their redemption. They’re lovely and charming, but you don’t really feel like they see you as a real person.”
The Kentucky church in the film works closely with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Christian congregations donate more than $100 million annually to the Fellowship, which distributes the funds to different highly politicized charity projects in Israel and the greater Middle East. A few of these inititiatives include supporting Lone Soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces, renovating bomb shelters in Israel, and funding a medical clinic in Jordan for Christian refugees persecuted in Muslim countries.
The vaguely anti-semitic theology, paired with the anti-semitic stereotypes held by many of these American Christians, makes for an uncomfortable collaboration around support for Israel between Jews and Gentiles. As the Israeli left has declined, it has become increasingly difficult for American Jews to defend the right-wing government of Israel and the state violence committed against Palestinians, so some right-wing supporters of Israel see Christian collaboration as a necessity. In the documentary Kings of Capitol Hill, former AIPAC legislative director Doug Bloomfield asks an Israeli official how the state can be so comfortable working with evangelicals, “when we American Jews are so distrustful of them and everything they stand for?” The official responded that, “When the going gets tough, they come here and they send money. You Jews stay home.”
Considering that many American Jews are secular Zionists and left-leaning, or religion is not their primary motivation for backing Israel, their support for the government is not guaranteed. Many evangelicals, on the other hand, are not as critical of Israel’s use of violence in the name of self-defense and are more sympathetic to right-wing politics in general. In his analysis of gentile Zionism and Jacksonian voters, Walter Russell-Mead writes, “But for Jacksonians, Israel, despite all its power and all its victories, remains an endangered David surrounded by enemies.” Those who support Israel for theological reasons are more steadfast in their support, regardless of the government in power in Israel, and this is compounded by the fact that many evangelical voters are also Jacksonian voters who are more inclined to support the use of military force and still harbor hostility toward Arabs from the Cold War.
Christians United For Israel has mobilized many of these evangelical, Jacksonian voters around domestic policies in support of the Jewish state while some American Jews were more skeptical. CUFI is the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, with over nine million members and a long list of policy successes which have been recognized by the Israeli government. Zinshtein attended the annual Washington summit of CUFI, and one participant she interviewed called it a “more effective AIPAC.” Through lobbying efforts, they have achieved funding cuts to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA); the passage of the Taylor Force Act to cut US aid to the Palestinian Authority until they stop paying stipends out of their Martyr’s Fund; the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem; American recognition of the Golan Heights; and the passage of state-level anti-BDS legislation. The Israeli government is vocal about their gratitude for this support. The homepage of the CUFI website brandishes a quote from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself saying, “I consider CUFI a vital part of Israel’s national security.”
Their ability to rally support from Christians across the country for pro-Israel legislation is impressive and not to be underestimated. In her interview with Haaretz, Zinshtein said, “When I started my research, I was told by the leader of an evangelical organization in September 2017 that if I was patient, maybe in a few years the evangelicals would get Trump to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. And then—just a few months after that conversation—it happened.”
President Trump invited his informal faith advisor Pastor Robert Jeffress, who said Jews will go to hell and cannot be saved, to the opening of the embassy. CUFI supported the Trump Peace Plan, which they considered “the most realistic proposal ever put forth by an American administration.” Yet their success at influencing Washington has powerful implications on Trump’s vision for Israel—one that analysts and the international community actually consider quite provocative and unrealistic. His plan prioritizes pleasing groups like CUFI, who make up much of his electoral base, rather than making meaningful progress on achieving peace in the region.
Reflecting on the success of the CUFI UNRWA funding cuts campaign, Zinshtein said to Haaretz, “It’s amazing how the president knows his survival depends on them.” Trump sent several top White House officials to speak at the CUFI summit in Washington last year, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, special envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt, and Ambassador David Friedman. CUFI’s founder, Texas pastor John Hagee, was also featured prominently at the ceremony for the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem and has been invited to the White House to discuss Middle East policy with Trump.
Despite their slightly variant political views, these right-wing American prophetic Zionist churches and organizations all share a similar strategy—they support the state of Israel through monetary donations and volunteer work, speak openly about their support of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Israeli military strength, and foster close government relationships with Netanyahu and his Israeli and American allies.
However, there are some organizations attempting to add nuance and recognize diversity in the Christian Zionist space, who take a contrasting approach to politics. Philos and Passages, both co-founded by Robert Nicholson, attempt to inform American Christians on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Jewish people. Nicholson’s own interest in Israel grew out of his fascination with the Hebraic roots of Christianity and the shared aspects of the Jewish and Christian worldviews. Nicholson describes the philosophy of his organizations as, “to get Christians—whatever their stripe, whatever their color, whatever their views of the land are—to come join this conversation that’s it. We’re not prescriptive.” Nicholson explained that he founded these organizations in part because he felt that the Christian Zionist space lacked meaningful engagement with Palestinian perspectives.
Philos and Passages also engage with the fraught aspects of the relationship between Jews and Christians by teaching about historic anti-semitism in Christian communities and its legacies. Nicholson told The Politic, “I and therefore Philos support Israel because we support the Jewish people and not the other way around. I have met individual Christians who actually kind of have it the other way around like they’re really not so interested in the Jewish people but because there’s Israel and there’s this whole prophetic thing now they’re into it.”
Nicholson’s organizations try to take a more pragmatic approach to the conflict and support a future of pluralism and a two-state solution. Nicholson said, “The Jewish people have never had all of the land that was promised them…. Someday God will work it out, but for the meantime I think we just need to find a way for people to respect each other and to live in the same locality.”
Nicholson cites the story Genesis 13 to provide a theological defense of his support for the two-state solution, in which Abraham divides the land of Israel, shortly after it was given to him by God, to resolve a dispute with Lot. He told The Politic, “If it’s good enough for Abraham five minutes after God promised him he can have it, I think it’s good enough for me.”
Speaking on the organization’s political strategy in America, Nicholson explained that unlike other organizations in the space, Philos is nonpartisan and does not focus on domestic initiatives. He said, “It is a rule because so many of these groups are in bed with politicians… I am not part of Trump’s evangelical anything, I don’t bring anything to Trump.”
The organization does collaborate with the State Department, but Nicholson explained that they only engage with outward facing issues. Though the organization has only existed during Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister, Nicholson clarified that Philos does not favor any one political party in Israel and would be willing to work with any Israeli politicians. “It’s all about getting to the deeper issues,” he said. “Israelis left, right, and center have certain concerns, certain needs, certain things they’d like to see in the region, in the US-Israel relationship. I focus on those things.”
Nicholson emphasized his underlying goal to spark dialogue within American Christian communities about Zionism, “the reputation we have worked really hard to have is that we don’t mind hard conversations. In fact, we run toward them. We like conflict of views. If you go on any of my trips you will hear from the victim of the terrorist to the family of the terrorist who was killed by the IDF.”
The balanced approach Nicholson takes with Philos and Passages has drawn criticism from Waller. In an interview with Israel365, Waller expressed his concern that Passages is not prophetic enough in its messaging or supportive enough of Israel. “The reality is that this is the Biblical narrative. The vineyards are going to be planted again, on the mountains of Samaria. The Jews are going to return. All the prophets speak about it,” he said. “If Passages doesn’t have the strength, the courage, to stand out there 100 percent, to protect the Jews, then somebody else is going to stand up. Christianity has to turn a corner.”
When asked about the criticism he receives, Nicholson said, “We take a lot of hits—Philos, Passages also—from our left and our right. If Tommy Waller is criticizing me and someone left of center is criticizing me that’s okay as long as I have the balance we are probably in good shape.”
Though the political agendas of HaYovel, CUFI, and Philos may not be entirely aligned, their influence on American foreign policy towards Israel is undeniable and should not be overlooked. The Trump administration has made many consequential decisions regarding Israel policy in the last four years, including moving the American embassy to Jerusalem; recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel; crafting a Middle East peace plan; and negotiating normalization agreements with Kosovo, Serbia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. American Jews and Jewish Zionist lobbyist organizations, like AIPAC, have typically regarded themselves as key players in America’s Israel policy, but a closer examination suggests Christian Zionists are now a more sizeable and effective pro-Israel constituency.
With anti-semitism on the rise in the United States and Trump’s intentional refusal to condemn neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations, American Jews do not appear to be the primary motivation behind the Trump administration’s pro-Israel policies. Israel’s political shift to the right, combined with Netanyahu’s cozy relationship with Trump, has also led to a decline in support for Israel among less observant American Jews. This recent change has led the Israeli government to realize the importance of Christian Zionist organizations, and Israeli politicians have demonstrated a willingness to turn a blind eye to underlying anti-semitism in exchange for realiable support. Fortunately, there are Christian Zionist organizations educating American Chrisitans about theological and historic anti-semitism, and promoting a pragmatic political approach that is guided by an understanding of the political realities of the conflict. We can only hope that Christian Zionist discourse will reflect a nuanced awareness of the political realities on the ground and prioritize peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians over theological concerns.