Before talking with Prof. Yaakov Ariel, an Israeli-born scholar at the University of North Carolina who specializes in American Christianity, my own impression over the last two decades is that American Evangelicals have increasingly turned from being pro-Israel to pro-Palestinian. As usual, the reality is a bit more complex.
Israel Today: It seems the more liberal Evangelicals become, the more they turn against Israel. Is this a correct assessment?
Prof. Ariel: It is true that progressive denominations are less favorable toward Israel, but there are nuances. For example, there are pro-Palestinian Lutherans, yet most Lutherans are still pro-Israel. Most churches try to maintain neutrality. Nevertheless, there are those that have moved from the traditional pro-Israel position to a strongly anti-Israel one. Reform churches like the Church of Scotland, which in the past supported Zionism, are now hostile toward Israel. Certain leaders of the World Council of Churches represent this shift as well. And there is Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran pastor who became renowned for his anti-Israel stance.
Speaking of which, Arabic-speaking Christians seem to be among the instigators of the anti-Israel shift in Western churches.
This was true until the Arab Spring and the devastation of Christian communities in Iraq. The Coptic Church in Egypt that spoke against Israel is now more favorable toward the Jewish state. The same can be said about Christians throughout the Middle East. ISIS and the dire situation of Egyptian Copts during the years of [Muslim Brotherhood] President Mohammed Morsi, along with the prosperity of Christians in Israel, caused some Arabic-speaking Christians to view Israel more favorably.
What is the point at which Western Christian support for Israel began to dwindle?
The unprecedented support for Israel that followed the Six Day War in 1967 started to decline in the 1980s, with the advance of post-colonial ideology. At that point, some American Jewish and Christian communities transitioned from almost blind support for Israel to a more critical approach based on the ‘occupation’ narrative.
Does Israel bear any responsibility for this erosion of Christian support?
Israel has failed to understand the Christian world and uninformed bureaucrats continue to show a great deal of insensitivity. Most importantly, Israel fails to realize that from its modern rebirth it is a joint Jewish-Christian project, which is a global project at that. Israel must do its utmost to articulate effectively its commitments to universal values. Out of petty provinciality, it has failed miserably in this effort. Israel hurt itself by not realizing how important the Jewish state is for Christians.
But Israeli officials face a great deal of hostility, which is why many won’t participate in public debates and forums.
It would be a mistake to avoid such meetings. Jews who are invited to speak in unfriendly forums have a calming effect. Their presence forces the planners to be more considerate and sensitive. The participation of a few Messianic Jews in the Christ at the Checkpoint conference is a case in point. Their presence has forced the organizers to tone down their statements, thus helping to keep the lines of communication open.