What Evangelicals Get Wrong About Israel and the Palestinians
“Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Sadly, this isn’t Scripture you hear many evangelicals quoting when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though Jesus uttered the words in the Sermon on the Mount. Instead of making peace, American evangelicals have mostly picked sides and offered unquestioning, blind loyalty to Israel, with little to no regard for the plight of the Palestinian people.
“Declaring that evangelical Christians are ‘on the front line of defense for Israel in the United States of America,’ the Rev. John Hagee brought delegates to the Christians United for Israel Washington Summit 2012 to their feet with loud cheering and even the sounds of shofars being blown,” The Times of Israel reported in April 2012.
That same month, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told NBC News of evangelical support of Israel, “American evangelicals have it in their DNA: God blesses those who bless the Jews and curses whoever curses the Jews.”
During the GOP primary, many evangelicals expressed support for Newt Gingrich, who called Palestinians “invented people.” Someone from a country that is a few hundred years old complaining about “invented” national identities would be comical if the crux of his message weren’t so offensive. Such despicable nonsense is spouted for one reason: to dehumanize Palestinians. After all, if they are just invented, pretend people, then who cares what happens to them?
Since when is dehumanizing people—God’s creation—an acceptable Christian view?
On the other side, a smaller number of American Christians have sized Israel up as an apartheid state and support boycotts, divestment campaigns, and other measures aimed at threatening the legitimacy of Israel. They engage in maddening moral equivalency, falsely equating the Israeli government with terrorist organizations.
Fortunately, some evangelicals are starting to push back at the old paradigm that support for one group requires opposition to the other. Christians who denounce Hamas threats to “burn Israeli cities” also find statements like this alarming: “The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.” So said Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai this week.
One of the leaders pursuing a different approach is Todd Deatherage, cofounder of Telos Group, an organization that works with American evangelicals to help positively transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Deatherage is an expert Middle East hand as well as an evangelical: he was a State Department official in the Bush administration, where he worked on Middle East issues. He was also once an aide to former senator Tim Hutchinson (R-AR).
“I strongly support the existence of Israel as a safe and secure homeland for the Jewish people; that is very important,” said Deatherage. “By the same token, I support Palestinian claims to their own state. I support the right of both peoples.”
Yes, Israel has every right to want to keep its citizens safe. Hamas sending rockets into Israeli neighborhoods, and as it did Tuesday, blowing up a bus in Tel Aviv, is intolerable. Israel has a right to a state. It has a right to defend itself. It has a right and reason to fear that people are trying to annihilate it, and the U.S. should stand with Israel against those who seek to destroy it. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Iran.) But evangelicals already know that. They just don’t acknowledge that the Palestinians also have rights.
“What a lot of Christians don’t understand is the importance of realizing both people have legitimate connections to the land,” said Deatherage. “You don’t have to reconcile them; you have to appreciate that both peoples have legitimate desires to live in dignity and peace. A lot of people on both sides want to do that. Both sides have rejectionists who don’t want that. Both sides have read the story to be that the only thing that works is violence; the only thing the other side understands is violence. But there is no military solution to this conflict. This has to be solved through negotiations.”
We need a new paradigm. It is possible to be at once pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-American, and pro-peace. No matter what people may claim, the game doesn’t have to be zero-sum. Christians are inclined to see everything as a battle between good and evil. This is a familiar place, an easier paradigm to navigate. But even where evil exists—and it does—basic Christian theology says there is no space in this world that can’t be redeemed by God.
Deatherage urges American evangelicals to understand the Palestinian perspective. “Palestinians have a need for dignity and respect, and a deep attachment to the land,” he said. “That is why they will not leave; they are tenacious about staying on their land and that they have their own place. There is a deep attachment to place. The Palestinian Christians who are there are the inheritors of the early church. They have kept the flame of Christianity alive for the last 2,000 years. They are descendants of the first Christians.”
Many evangelicals will be shocked to learn there are Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation. But that shouldn’t be the reason to care. Regardless of the religion or ethnicity of the people caught up in this conflict, Deatherage said, “There are two peoples with two stories, and if you want to figure out how to be a peacemaker, to take what Jesus said seriously, then it behooves you to be able to listen to the other and ask, “What do I really need to do to be a reconciler in this very broken place?”
Christians would be wise to ponder that important question.