No embarrassment if you’ve never heard of Ron Dermer. Most Americans haven’t, though he was Israel’s ambassador to the United States for more than seven years. Not that most Israelis have heard of him, either. But in certain circles – particularly among those close to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – he is a very big deal, with a very big idea that horrifies mainstream American and Israeli Jews alike.
The notion that has launched a thousand shudders a hemisphere apart: The view that Israel should be concerned less about the support of American Jews and more about the support of evangelical Christians.
“People have to understand that the backbone of Israel’s support in the United States is the evangelical Christians,” Dermer said this spring, sparking a controversy that has roiled the waters among close observers of the American-Israeli relationship. “It’s true because of numbers and also because of their passionate and unequivocal support for Israel.”
The argument presented by Mr. Dermer – who was born in Miami and made aliyah in 2006 – is part theology but also part mathematics: “About 25% [of Americans] – some people think more – are evangelical Christians. Less than two percent of Americans are Jews. So if you look just at numbers, you should be spending a lot more time doing outreach to Evangelical Christians than you would do to Jews.”
This argument – controversial when it was made in early spring, incendiary in the days when the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict deepened – has caused great consternation in large measure because there is merit to Mr. Dermer’s view of American evangelical Christians’ devotion to Israel if not to his nostrum that religious conservatives are more critical to the future of Israel than American Jews. This outlook has spilled over into American politics; last August, President Donald J. Trump, who knew that he would win a small percentage of Jewish votes but a huge majority of evangelical votes, asserted that he “moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem” for “the evangelicals.”
Indeed, two-thirds of evangelicals have a positive view of Israel, according to a 2017 poll conducted by LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Three-fourths of those polled said Christians should support Israel’s defense of itself from terrorists, an impressive figure given that the survey was conducted at a time of relative tranquility in the region and not when the country’s forces were battling Hamas.
“For a lot of Evangelicals, Israel is more central than it is for a lot of Jews,” said former Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, the national board chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “The liberal Democrat base is not pro-Israel. And as a group, evangelicals are connected to Israel in a different way and are less critical of Israel than some American Jews.”
Even so, the idea that Israel would give priority to evangelical Christians over Americans who share the Jewish faith is deeply troubling to many Israelis – so much so that Yair Lapid, alternate prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, took aim at it in only his second day in power.
“The support of Christian evangelicals and other groups is important and heart-warming but the Jewish people are more than allies, they are family,” he said. “Jews from all streams, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, are our family. And family is always the most important relationship, and the one that needs to be worked on more than any other.”
That squares with the view of Ronni Shaked, Middle East and Islam Research Unit Coordinator at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace in Jerusalem. “Dermer is talking about the evangelists in order to get them to increase their support of Israel and give money to the settlements,” he said. “To those of us who live here, these evangelicals – who are connected with the ‘end of days’ and with the Jews who believe in Jesus – are very dangerous.
“This is for us a terrible thing,” he continued, “and it is not to the advantage of Israel to have a relationship with them.’’
The affinity among religious conservatives for Israel derives at least in part from passages in the final book of the New Testament.
“There is all this belief that Jews are the chosen people and that the Jewish homeland will be the special place for the unfolding of apocalyptic events predicted in the Book of Revelations,” said Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth College expert on religious conservatives. “These are people who are simultaneously pro-Israel and antisemitic in that they are looking for the conversion of the Jews.”
Jonathan S. Tobin, editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, believes it is more complex than that. “Most conservative Christians back the Jewish state simply because their Bible and faith tell them that he who blesses Israel will themselves be blessed,” he wrote recently. “Moreover, they take the promises made in the Bible to the Jews about the disposition of the land of Israel seriously, which is something that is not true of most American Jews. Even so, the idea that Jews who don’t believe in Christian theology worrying about what will happen after a theoretical return of Jesus is risible.”
Though the Book of Revelations passages are centuries old, it is only recently that American evangelicals have transformed them into political action.
“While Southern Baptists had much to say about Palestine and even about Zionism, few felt the need to take political sides in the conflict at the time,” according to Walker Robins, an expert on Christians’ attitudes toward Israel who is a lecturer at Merrimack College in North Andover. “Already between the 1920s and 1940s, increasing numbers of Baptists were adopting premillennialist interpretations of the Bible that affirmed the Jewish people’s covenantal rights to the land of Israel and anticipated their restoration in concert with the Second Coming of Christ.”
The LifeWay poll bears this out. Four-fifths of those surveyed said that they believed the modern rebirth of the State of Israel in 1948 and the re-gathering of millions of Jewish people to Israel were fulfillments of a Bible prophecy – and a demonstration that “we are getting closer to the return of Jesus Christ.”
Mainstream Jews largely believe the emergence of a separate and independent Israel was in fact the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy – but they do not see it as a sign of the fulfillment of Christians’ hopes.
Nor do Mr. Dermer and his patron Mr. Netanyahu fully comprehend just how uncomfortable this notion is for American Jews.
“Dermer’s position is foolish – and insulting,’’ said Barry Shrage, the longtime leader of Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston and now a professor of the practice at Brandeis University. “The truth is that the American Jewish community and Israel need each other. Israel is an important part of what it means to be a Jew in America. Strengthening the support of Jews for Israel – and repairing some Jews’ sentiments about Israel – is a far better approach.”
David M. Shribman, who teaches American politics at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy in Montreal, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that won the Pulitzer Prize.