Messianic Hopes and Middle East Politics: the Influence of Millennial Faith on American Middle East Policies
Yaakov Ariel
Online since 01 April 2011

Yaakov Ariel is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has published books and essays on the history of Christian Zionism, Christian missions to the Jews, and Christianity and the Holy Land. Among his publications are: On Behalf of Israel: Fundamentalist Christian Attitudes towards Jews and Zionism (1991), and Evangelizing the Chosen People: History of Missions to the Jews, which won the Outler Prize of the American Society of Church History (2002).

In November 2006 a number of Christian groups and leaders sent worried electronic messages lamenting on the possible effects of the Republican loss in the elections that had taken place that month on American support for Israel. Since the 1960s, American policy in the Middle East has been Israeli-friendly, with the American government providing Israel with military, financial and diplomatic aid. American support has remained firm even after the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, when the possibility of an Israeli contribution to the struggle against Soviet global influence had become irrelevant. Christian evangelical sentiments have come to play an increasingly important role in influencing American policy, at times, counterbalancing reservations some Americans have developed over the extensive American backing of Israel. Christian evangelical political influence reached a peak during the administration of George W. Bush, which relied heavily on evangelical backing and at times promoted evangelical values and modes of thinking.

This essay aims at offering an explanation on how a biblical Christian messianic faith has come to effect American policies towards the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict, and point to the connection between the details of that faith and American hopes and expectations over the developments in the Middle East.

The Evangelical Christian Millennial Faith and Israel

The millennial hope that has served as the source of Christian evangelical support for Israel draws on a long Christian messianic tradition, which goes back to the early days of Christianity. The more immediate roots of that faith can be traced to Protestant groups, which in the wake of the Reformation, had taken a renewed interest in the prospect of Jesus’ second coming. Reading the Old Testament in a new manner, a number of Protestant leaders expected the Jews to play an important role in the events of the End Times. Such Protestants have tended to read the Christian sacred scriptures in a more literal manner, and in contrast to other branches of Christianity, have seen the Jews as heirs to the covenant between God and Abraham, and the object of biblical prophecies about a restored Davidic kingdom in the Land of Israel. In their eschatological scenarios, the return of the Jews to Palestine was one of the first steps in the advancement of the messianic timetable. Ironically, these premillennialist opinions on Jews were often mixed and ambivalent, based on the Christian sacred scriptures, on the one hand, and on the image of the Jews in Western European culture on the other hand.

The English Revolution in the mid-seventeenth century stirred the messianic imagination and gave rise to groups in England that expected the End Times to occur imminently. Some of these people expected the return of the Jews to Palestine. Christian interest in the English-speaking world in the prospect of Jewish restoration to Palestine resurfaced with much vigor in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Coinciding with the growth of the evangelical movement in Britain and America, many evangelical Christians developed fascination with prophecy and the prospect of the arrival of the messianic times. Two brands of Christian millennial faiths gained prominence in the nineteenth century, “historical” and “futurist,” differing as to when the events of the End Times were to begin but often sharing ideas on the role of the Jews and the Holy Land in God’s plans for humanity. Adherents of both schools became supporters of Zionist initiatives, as well as promoters of missionary activity among the Jews. In Europe, the predominant messianic brand was “historical,” identifying current events with biblical passages, while the premillennialist faith in its “futurist,” dispensationalist form became widely accepted in America in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Dispensational premillenialism has become part and parcel of a conservative American evangelical creed, serving as a philosophy of history for conservative Christians and meshing well with their outlook on contemporary culture. It has also served to provide hope and reassurance in the face of uncertainty, for example, during the Cold War. Dispensationalists are not centered in specific churches. They define the church not as a particular denomination but as the body of the true believers, composed of those who have undergone inner experiences of conversion, and have accepted Jesus as their personal Savior.

According to the dispensationalist school of Christian messianic thought, the messianic times will begin with ‘the rapture of the Church’. The true believers will be snatched from earth, and meet Jesus in the air. These saintly persons will remain with Jesus for seven years (according to some versions, for three and a half years) and thus be spared the turmoils and miseries that will be inflicted on those who remain on earth during that period. For the latter, this period will be marked by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, and famines, as well as wars, and murderous dictatorial regimes. By the time Jesus returns to earth, about two-thirds of humanity will have perished. The seven years that stand between the current era and the messianic times, will also be “Time of Jacob’s Trouble.” The Jews will return to their ancient homeland “in unbelief,” without accepting Jesus as their Savior, and will establish a political commonwealth there, an instrumental step in the advancement of the messianic timetable. Living in spiritual blindness, the Jews will let themselves be ruled by an impostor of the Messiah, Antichrist, who will inflict a reign of terror. The arrival of Jesus with the true Christians will end Antichrist’s rule. Jesus will crush this satanic ruler and his armies, and will establish the expected millennial kingdom. Those Jews who survive the turmoils and terror of the Great Tribulation will accept Jesus as their Savior. There will follow a peaceful period marked by the righteous rule of Christ on earth, with the Jews inhabiting David’s ancient kingdom and Jerusalem serving as the capital of the entire world. A number of evangelists, including C. I. Scofield (1845-1926) labored to spread the dispensationalist faith in America through publications and conferences. The spread of the new messianic faith among conservative Protestants included the idea that the Jews were chosen people and popularized the idea of their imminent return to Palestine.

Christian Support for the Zionist Cause

The place Jews occupy in this messianic faith can well explain the interest that Christians holding such beliefs have shown in the Jews and the prospect of their national rejuvenation. Beginning in the nineteenth century, premillennialist Christians have come up with a series of initiatives intended to bring about or promote the national restoration of the Jews to Palestine. An outstanding American Christian Zionist at the turn of the 20th century was William Blackstone (1841-1935) who, in 1891, organized a petition urging the president of the United States to convene an international conference of the world powers that would give Palestine back to the Jews. More than four hundred prominent Americans signed this petition – congressmen, governors, mayors, publishers and editors of leading newspapers, notable clergymen, and leading businessmen. The petition reflected the warm support that the idea of the Jewish restoration to Palestine could receive among American Protestants influenced by a biblical outlook on Palestine and on the Jews as the people associated with that land. During the 19th century, images of Palestine as the Holy Land became strong in American Protestant culture. A number of American visitors wrote about their impressions and scholars explored the land. American Protestants tended to affirm the biblical narrative, exploring, for example, the locations in Palestine of biblical sites. Likewise, Palestine had become, during the 19th century, a focus of American Protestant missionary activity as well as a place of settlement for a number of Protestant American premillenialist groups. The growth in interest in Palestine enhanced the Christian Zionist cause.

Blackstone devised a theory that has become a cornerstone of American Christian Zionists ever since. The American evangelist believed that the United States had a special role and mission in God’s plans for humanity: that of a modern Cyrus, to help restore the Jews to Zion. He believed that God has looked favorably upon America on account of its moral superiority over other nations, and that America would be judged, among other things, according to the way it carried out its mission. This theory enabled American evangelicals to combine their messianic belief and understanding of the course of human history with their sense of American patriotism. Although they have often criticized contemporary American culture, they have remained ardent supporters of the American commonwealth. The early beginnings of the relationship between Christian and Jewish Zionists were laid down at that time. Activists of the small pre-Herzelian Zionist organizations did not fully comprehend what motivated Christians such as Blackstone to become supporters of the fledgling Zionist movement, but they were satisfied that Blackstone was a genuine friend who was committed to helping their cause. Zionist leaders did not take the premillennialist theology seriously, viewing it as a somewhat eccentric conviction and focusing instead on the support it provided for their cause. Christian Zionists, for their part, had mixed feelings about Jewish Zionism. Their immediate reaction to the rise of the Zionist movement was enthusiastically positive, although they were disappointed by its secular character, and saddened that the Zionists were unaware of what the evangelical protagonists considered to be the real significance of the Jewish return to Palestine.

Receiving endorsement for his plan from major Protestant churches, and coordinating his efforts with those of the American Zionist leadership, William Blackstone organized a second petition in 1916 calling upon the president of the United States to help restore Palestine to the Jews. By that time, American Zionism had grown and its leadership had become more influential. American Zionist leaders, such as Louis Brandeis, Steven Wise, Jacob de Haas, and Nathan Straus, saw the Christian efforts as beneficial to the Zionist cause and established a warm relationship with Blackstone. Blackstone did not keep his messianic motivations secret from his Jewish friends, but the latter were not bothered by his prediction that years of turmoil were awaiting the Jews when the events of the End Times began to unfold. They did not expect apocalyptic events to take place and saw the help that Blackstone and his evangelical Christian friends were providing them as the only concrete outcome of his messianic faith.

Historians have pointed out that the issuing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, in which Britain expressed its support for the building of a Jewish national home in Palestine, resulted from a mixture of political calculations and British Christian support for Jewish restoration in Palestine. Few, however, have taken notice of the efforts of Christians in America to convince president Woodrow Wilson not to oppose the British initiative to issue the declaration. Wilson himself did not wish his negotiations with Zionist leaders and their Christian supporters to become public knowledge, and preferred to make his moves behind closed doors. The Balfour Declaration and the British takeover of Palestine in their turn encouraged American evangelicals. They interpreted these developments as preparation of the ground for the arrival of the Messiah, and their joy over the British rule in Palestine dominated two “prophetic conferences” that took place in Philadelphia and New York in 1918.20

During the 1920s-1940s, evangelical Christians continued to show interest in the events that were taking place in the life of the Jewish people, and especially in the development of the Jewish community in Palestine. They saw the struggles and turmoil that befell the Jewish nation in the period between the two world wars in light of their eschatological beliefs. Evangelical journals with pro-Zionist leanings, such as Our Hope, The King’s Business, The Moody Monthly, and The Pentecostal Evangel, regularly published news on developments that took place in the life of the Jewish people, the Zionist movement, and the Jewish community in Palestine. American premillenialists were encouraged by the new waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine in the years of the British administration of the country, and events, such as the opening of the Hebrew University in 1925 and the new seaport in Haifa in 1932, were publicized in their periodicals. They interpreted these developments as signs that the Jews were energetically building a commonwealth in their ancient land and that the great events of the End Times were to occur very soon. Looking forward to an imminent second coming of Jesus on earth, they expressed dismay at the restrictions on Jewish immigration and settlement that the British were imposing. They also criticized the Arabs for their hostility toward the Zionist endeavor and for their violence against the Jews.

During that period (1920s-1940s), conservative evangelical political power was on the decline. After the Scopes Trial of 1925, they withdrew, to a large degree, from the political arena, although they continued to evangelize and build a conservative Protestant infrastructure. Evangelical leaders did not see themselves as influential national figures, who could advance a political agenda internationally. These Christian sympathizers of Zionism did not organize politically in order to try to prevent the massacre of the Jews in World War II, or to change British restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. While evangelical leaders had done little to convince the American government to support the creation of a Jewish state, the American president between 1945 and 1952, Harry Truman, took a pro-Zionist line. A Baptist from Kansas, Truman decided in favor of the new country, overruling at times State Department officials, who advised against antagonizing Arab states. During his presidency Truman had not openly presented himself as a Christian Zionist and it was only after he left office that he explained his decision to take a supportive line on account of fulfilling the role of a modern Cyrus, helping restore the Jews to Zion. Truman’s explanation of his policies suggests that an evangelical biblical imagery had influence on Americans of Protestant backgrounds.

While not being officially present in an active way at the cradle of the Jewish state, evangelical Christian response to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was enthusiastic. Although they were not happy with the secular character of the Israeli government and society, some of the things they saw, such as the mass emigration of Jews to Israel from Asian, African, and East European countries, seemed to confirm their messianic hopes. In their eyes, this was a significant development, one that had been prophesied in the Bible, and a clear indication that the present era was terminating and the events of the End Times were beginning to occur.

Contrary to common perception, evangelical Christians did take notice of and showed concern over the fate of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs who lost their homes in 1948 and became refugees. Although many evangelicals supported the Israeli state and criticized Arab hostility against Israel, they expressed a belief that the land of Israel could maintain an Arab population alongside its Jewish population and that Israel had an obligation to treat the Arabs with fairness. A few conservative Protestant churches, such as the Southern Baptists, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Assemblies of God, and the Plymouth Brethren, have worked among Palestinians, offering relief and educational services. Some missionaries have sympathized with the Palestinians. Others have strived to reconcile premillennialist teachings with the hopes and fears of Arab congregants and potential converts, emphasizing that the ingathering of the Jews in the Land of Israel and the eventual reestablishment of the Davidic kingdom did not necessitate the banishment of Arabs from that land or their harassment in any way. In spite of such reassurances, only rarely did evangelical Arabs become supporters of Christian Zionism.

The Six-Day War and Its Effects

The Six-Day War had a dramatic effect on evangelical imagery and hopes. Since the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the nineteenth century, there has not been a political-military event that has provided so much fuel to the engines of Christian prophetic imagination as did the short war between Israel and its neighbors in June 1967. The unexpected Israeli victory, and the territorial gains it brought with it, strengthened the premillennialists’ conviction that Israel was created for a mission in history and was to play an important role in the developments that were to precede the arrival of the Messiah. Evangelical willingness to actively support Israel increased significantly. During the 1970s-2000s, conservative evangelicals have become Israel’s ardent supporters in the American public arena. Especially since the 1980s, a pro-Israel Christian evangelical lobby has used its political power to promote policies favorable to the interests of the Jewish state.

Evangelicals were not struggling against the current. The decades following the Six-Day War were marked by massive American support for Israel in terms of money, arms, and diplomatic backing. While many conservative Christians considered Israel to be important for the advancement of history, they also believed that American global interests necessitated support for Israel. Between the 1960s-1980s, a number of American Christian leaders considered Israel a junior ally, which, among other things, was capable of providing pertinent intelligence services. Wishing to keep the Soviets and their Middle Eastern allies at bay, it was John Kennedy, a non-evangelical, who began a policy of providing Israel with arms, looking upon it as an ally against Soviet influence in the region. This policy was further expanded during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Johnson was impressed by the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War. Utilizing Western arms, Israel overcame the Soviet-sponsored armies of Egypt and Syria, humiliating the Soviets and adding to Western prestige. American policymakers were practical politicians, who made decisions based on pragmatic considerations. However, the attitude of leaders such as Lyndon Johnson toward Israel was influenced at times by their biblical Christian upbringing. Some Americans have also seen in Israel a country that has undergone similar experiences to their own.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, religious sentiments may have influenced the attitude of Richard Nixon. Although few people have related to him as a religious person, Nixon grew up in a pious home that was affiliated with an evangelical branch of the Quakers. As a child he underwent a religious experience, which he later on recounted numerous times. During his presidency he was particularly close to the evangelist Billy Graham, who acted as confidant and lobbied in favor of Israel. Nixon’s attitudes towards Jews and Israel reflected contradictory feelings. Nixon openly expressed hostile stereotypical views of Jews that had been prevalent in Western culture for centuries. At the same time, he promoted Jews, such as Henry Kissinger, to positions of prominence in his administration and expressed admiration for Israel’s courageous stand against its enemies. During his presidency, America’s relation with Israel became closer than ever before, reflected in increased military and financial aid. In October 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack, Nixon authorized emergency military supplies to the struggling Israeli army. It was also during his presidency that premillenialist evangelicals started to become an organized voice in attempts to influence the American government to support Israel.

The years following the 1967 war saw a dramatic rise in evangelical influence and self-confidence. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, a progressive evangelical, was elected president. However, Carter was a disappointment to the more conservative messianically-oriented born-again Christians, with whom he shared basic tenets of faith, but not their political views. Carter did take an interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict and brought Egypt and Israel to sign a peace treaty, but the role he played was that of a liberal American statesman rather than an evangelical Christian. His attitude towards Israel was much more reserved than that of Johnson or Nixon, and he did not give preference to Israeli interests over and against Arab ones.

While not officially a conservative evangelical, Ronald Reagan, who replaced Carter as president in January 1981, was influenced in forming his Middle East policy by evangelical premillenialist views, which, at times, he expressed openly. In fact, one can look upon the Reagan administration as the beginning of long years of evangelical predominance in the corridors of American policy-making. American financial support and diplomatic backing, which reached a zenith during Nixon’s presidency, continued until the 2000s. While before 1967, Israel relied on European allies, such as France, America has become in the later decades of the 20th century, Israel’s major friend and protector. Reagan’s policy towards Israel was pursued by his successor, George Bush, who was also close to evangelicals and relied on their support. During the 1980s-2000s, a friendly attitude toward Israel has been part and parcel of the evangelical vision for America’s global policy. While other considerations also determined Reagan’s and Bush’s policies towards Israel, the evangelical conservative Christian demand that America should assist the Jewish state played an important part.

Bill Clinton’s relationship with Israel has to be judged very differently from that of Reagan or Bush. Although raised an evangelical Christian himself, Clinton was not a conservative evangelical statesman and, unlike Carter, did not emphasize his evangelical affiliation. He did not receive much support from conservative evangelicals, who had seen him as representing liberal values to which they had been opposed. While in Arkansas, Clinton had remained, however, a member of a Southern Baptist church. Upon his election as president in 1992, his pastor delivered a sermon that included the message that the president should look favorably upon Israel. This sermon tells us perhaps more about the effect of Christian biblical-messianic thinking on Baptists in Arkansas, than it does about Clinton’s personal faith. Yet it is important to be aware of the fact that the spiritual roots and cultural background of an American president, who was friendly to Jews and showed deep concern for Israel, were in the Bible Belt and influenced by a biblical vision of the Land of Israel and its people. With the return of a Republican administration, following the 2000 elections, large parts of the constituency supporting the president held to a Christian evangelical understanding of history. Even more than previous administrations, that of George W. Bush, a committed evangelical Christian himself, has been influenced by conservative evangelical values and agendas. His extending of political and financial aid to the Jewish state led some to speculate that the Christian Texan president was reluctant to initiate diplomatic moves that might upset premillennialist supporters of Israel.

The evangelical premillennialist faith has influenced, at times more openly, the attitudes of other prominent American public figures towards Israel. One noted example was that of Jesse Helms from North Carolina, who had served as a United States senator during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. A born-again Christian, Helms, who as the powerful chair of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee labored to limit American financial aid to foreign nations, approved of the extensive support that the United States had offered Israel. Helms’ positive attitude was not unique. In the 1970s to 2000s, dozens of pro-Israel Christian organizations emerged in the United States. Wishing to muster political support for their stance, their leaders lectured in churches, distributed written or electronic material, and organized tours to the Holy Land. Christian tourism to Israel grew considerably in the 1970s, turning into a major component of the Israeli tourist industry.

During the 1970s-2000s, evangelical Christian supporters of Israel had also established organizations to muster support for Israel on a global level. One of the more visible and better known pro-Israel Christian organizations has been the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), which pro-Israeli evangelicals established in 1980, in reaction to the refusal of many nations to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The ICEJ has tried to make the point that true Christians backed Israel and chose as its logo two olive branches hovering over a globe with Jerusalem at its center. Initially concentrating on promoting evangelical and pietist support for Israel in European, South American and Asian and African countries, the ICEJ has also established itself in the US. “Embassies” around the globe distribute ICEJ journals, brochures, leaflets, DVDs and CDs of “Davidic music” and sermons. The Feast of Tabernacles serves as the focal point of the year for the International Christian Embassy. A major convocation of thousands of supporters from around the world, the Christian celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles includes tours of the country for Christian pilgrims, a march through Jerusalem’s main streets, a “biblical meal” served and celebrated on the shores of the Dead Sea, and assemblies in Jerusalem. Embassy representatives also raise money for philanthropic enterprises in Israel, such as providing welfare services, distributing money and goods to new immigrants as well as other needy Israelis. Most evangelical Christians, by contrast, have expressed their good will towards Jews and Israel by supporting missionary agencies that have aimed at converting Jews.

Over the years, the International Christian Embassy has become one of the more controversial among the Christian groups and agencies that work in the Middle East or take an interest in its fate. As a rule, liberal Christians have no contact with the Embassy and many of them reject its messages and its activities, which they view as one-sided. Likewise, Middle Eastern churches generally have no patience with the ICEJ and its activities. These churches have Arab constituencies, sympathize with Arab national feelings, and have expressed support for Palestinian causes, and, as members of the Middle East Council of Churches, have signed petitions condemning the Embassy’s activities. While Arab and pro-Arab Christians have resented Christian Zionists, the Israeli leadership has welcomed its unexpected allies with open arms.

In general, the Israeli leadership has not fully comprehended the nature of the special attitudes of evangelical Christian sympathizers toward the new state, and has overlooked elements in the theology and activity of their evangelical supporters to which, otherwise, they would have objected. Israeli officials could not tell the difference between mainline Christian supporters of Israel, who had shown sympathy for Israel on the basis of political or humanitarian considerations, and conservative evangelical supporters, whose attitudes have been rooted in a biblical messianic faith. They were certainly unaware of the details of the Christian eschatological hopes and had never heard of such terms as “the Rapture of the Saints,” “the Great Tribulation” or the “Time of Jacob’s Trouble.”

Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, is a case in point. Ben-Gurion believed that Christian supporters viewed the establishment of the State of Israel as the ultimate fulfillment of biblical prophecies rather than as a step toward the realization of the millennial kingdom. When he gave expression to such views in an address at the opening of an international Pentecostal conference that convened in Israel in 1961, Israeli officials present were puzzled by the coolness of the Pentecostal reaction to the prime minister’s speech. They certainly were not aware that Christians holding a biblical-messianic faith saw in Israel only a stepping stone that would lead to the realization of the kingdom of God on earth. Likewise they did not realize that messianic hopes encouraged not only support for Israel but also aggressive missionary activity among the Jews.

Missions to the Jews have occupied an important place on the premillennialist Christian agenda and have come to characterize the messianic-oriented Christian interaction with the Jews even more than pro-Zionist or pro-Israel activity. Its meaning for evangelicals has gone far beyond attempts to save souls. Conservative Christians have seen evangelism among the Jews as assisting the divine plan of salvation, as they have been teaching a people who are central to the unfolding of God’s plans for human salvation, about their role in that endeavor. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, evangelicals established numerous missions to the Jews, operating all around the Jewish world. Often, the persons operating the missions would be active on both fronts, promoting support for Zionism, and later for the State of Israel, and evangelizing the Jews at the same time. For institutions such as the American Messianic Fellowship International, the Friends of Israel, or Jews for Jesus, the two aims are inseparable. The best-known of today’s evangelical missions to the Jews, Jews for Jesus, holds to and promotes pro-Israel sentiments, calling its music band “the Liberated Wailing Wall.” Jewish leaders have not welcomed the missionary efforts, but Jewish attempts to curtail missionary activities have proved futile. Committed to maintaining the status quo in religious matters, the Israeli government has protected the right of missionaries to evangelize in the country. While some Israeli officials objected to the tolerant policies, Christian missionaries have continued their operations in the country, with new groups and congregations constantly coming on the scene. Attempting to build good relations with Christian countries and global institutions, the Israeli government considered it essential to assure the world that it would not curtail Christian activities. Though Jewish Orthodox activists protested against Christian evangelism in Israel, the government refused to change its policy in any meaningful way.

During the 1970s, as the evangelical influence on American political life became apparent, the Israeli government took more notice of this segment of Christianity and has adopted measures to establish a cordial relationship with its leaders and activists. Among other things, Menachem Begin’s government appointed a special liaison for evangelical Christians. Israeli officials began speaking at evangelical conferences and evangelists met with Israeli leaders as part of their touring schedules in the country. After Israel bombed the Iraqi atomic plant in 1981, Begin called Jerry Falwell, then the leader of the Moral Majority, and asked him to back Israel politically. During the 1980s to 2000s, Israeli policymakers have come to rely on pro-Israel Christian groups, such as the International Christian Embassy, as a vehicle to reach the Protestant Christian community. The trust and friendship on the Israeli part is demonstrated by the granting to the ICEJ permission to hold gatherings in the courtyard of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, as part of its Tabernacles celebrations. In April 1990, the Speaker of the Knesset presented the Embassy with the Quality of Life Award, for its positive role in Israeli life. Ironically, many of the Jewish allies and friends of evangelical Christians are in the nationalist-religious wing of Israeli society. In 1988, the magazine Nekuda, an organ of the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, carried a favorable article on the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem entitled “Without Inhibitions: Christians Committed to Judea and Samaria.” In winter 2006, Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union published an article, “Who Are Our Real Friends,” in which it highlighted the support evangelical Christians offer Israel and their friendliness in comparison to other, less appreciative, segments of Christianity.

Ironically, during the 1970s-1990s, orthodox Jews in Israel attempted to curtail missionary activity by passing legislation intended to restrict the evangelizing of Jews in Israel, not realizing that this activity was carried out by the same elements in Christianity whose friendship they had come more and more to appreciate. In 1996, a proposal to curtail missionary activity passed the initial Knesset vote. Missionaries operating in Israel called upon their evangelical supporters around the globe to raise their voices against the impending law. “We call upon the international Christian community to join us in our opposition to this law,” read one of the appeals, “as Christian believers in the God of Israel and in Jesus the Messiah and Savior of the world, we have a special respect and appreciation for the Jewish people and the nation of Israel. We seek and pray for the welfare of all of God’s people in the land. We view with grave concern the erosion of Israel’s democratic freedom by this proposed law.” Evangelical supporters of Israel virtually flooded the Israeli embassy and consulates in America, as well as in other countries with evangelical populations, with letters of protest. The standard letters emphasized that they were written by friends of Israel who wished the country well and wanted to caution the government that the passing of such a law would turn its current supporters against it. In the end the Knesset gave up on the legislation. The aborted attempts at legally curtailing missionary activity in Israel highlighted the nature of contemporary Israeli realpolitik: accepting and even encouraging the friendship of conservative Christians, with whom they share a great deal but whose agendas do not always match their own. Unlike missions, on which they have disagreed, a number of Israeli and American evangelical Christian groups have cooperated over their mutual wish to build the Temple.

Evangelical Christians and the Building of the Temple

One of the important outcomes of the War of June 1967 for evangelical Christians expecting the second coming of Jesus has been the Israeli take-over of the territory on which the Temple could be rebuilt and the priestly sacrificial rituals reinstated. The prospect of building the Temple excited premillennialist Christians as a meaningful act standing between this era and the next. A striking demonstration of the renewed interest in the Temple in Christian messianic thought could be found in an evangelical Christian bestseller of the 1970s, The Late Great Planet Earth. The author, Hal Lindsey, like other premillennialist Christians, was strongly impressed by the Six-Day War and its immediate outcome, and placed Israel at the center of the expected eschatological drama. For him, the rebuilding of the Temple and the rise of Antichrist to power were major components of the Great Tribulation, without which the coming of the Messiah could not take place. A new interest has arisen in Christian conservative circles in the Temple building, its interior plan, and its sacrificial works, as well as in the priestly garments and utensils. The rebuilt Temple has played an important role in evangelical premillenialist novels and fictions, such as the popular series Left Behind. The novels take place in the aftermath of the Rapture, describing the struggles of those that are “left behind,” after the apocalyptic time begins. Not least of the troubles awaiting such people is the rise to power of the Antichrist, a smooth-tongued Secretary General of the United Nations, who orchestrates the removal of the mosques from the Temple Mount to New Babylon. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, premillennialist Christians began cooperating with groups of nationalist and orthodox Jews who were making plans to build the Temple. Such Jews, who were studying the Temple rituals, manufacturing utensils to be used for sacrificial purposes according to biblical or Talmudic measures, or trying to breed a new race of heifers, served to sustain and excite the Christian messianic imagination. Christian premillennialists marveled at such groups and their activities, viewing them as “signs of the time,” indications that the current era was ending and that the apocalyptic events of the End Times were near. The Temple Institute, a museum and workshop in the Old City of Jerusalem that houses utensils and artifacts that a group of Jewish advocates of the building of the Temple have reconstructed since the 1980s, has become a site of pilgrimage for Christian believers in the second coming. Christian visitors have been encouraged by the sight of Jews preparing the implements for use in the Third Temple and the visits have served to enhance the faith in the imminent end of this era and the belief that the Rapture of the Church is about to take place. The first to establish contacts between Christians and Jews interested in the building of the Temple was an English-speaking Israeli journalist. A secular Jew with artistic inclinations, Stanley Goldfoot advocated a right-wing outlook on Israeli politics in an English-language satirical magazine that he published in Tel Aviv in the 1960s and 1970s. After retiring, Goldfoot relocated to Jerusalem and established the Temple Foundation, operated from his handsome Jerusalem home, and became, in the 1970s-1980s, the Israeli liaison for Christians advocating the rebuilding of the Temple. According to one source, Goldfoot was the one to establish the contacts, which became very vital in the 1990s-2000s, between the Temple Mount Faithful and its Christian supporters. In the 1980s, American evangelists, such as Chuck Smith and Pat Robertson, helped to raise funds to help Jewish groups rebuild the Temple. These evangelists are mostly charismatic, their churches situated at the center of conservative Protestant Christianity. Such people influence America’s political agenda. Smith secured financial support for exploration of the exact site of the Temple. His associate Lambert Dolphin, a California physicist and archaeologist, took it upon himself to explore the Temple Mount. However, his attempts to find conclusive evidence regarding the Temple’s exact location were frustrated by the Israeli police, who, in the face of Muslim protests, refused to allow the use of devices on or under the Mount. Many Christians and Jews interested in the building of the Temple, such as Oz Hawkins, did not wait for conclusive findings by Dolphin. Relying on the work of an Israeli architect, Hawkins and others embraced the theory that the location of the Temple was between the two major mosques, El-Aksa and the Dome of the Rock. The Temple, they concluded, could therefore be rebuilt without destroying the existing mosques, thus providing a “peaceful solution” to the problem of how to build the Temple at a site that is holy to the Muslims. Christian proponents of building the Temple have searched for the lost Ark of the Covenant, adding a touch of adventure and mystery to a potentially explosive topic. Some premillennialist Christians have also tried to find the ashes of red heifers, which are necessary, according to the Jewish law, in order to allow Jews to enter the Temple Mount. A new interest has arisen in Christian evangelical circles in the Temple building, its interior plan, and its sacrificial works, as well as in the priestly garments and utensils. The rebuilt Temple has also played an important role in evangelical novels and fictions, the most popular of them being the aforementioned series Left Behind, published in the late 1990s and early 2000s which sold tens of millions of copies.


The messianic understanding of Israel and its role in history has been an important component in the evangelical vision of American policy in the last generation. On its own, the evangelical Christian attitude towards Israel might not have counted for much in the more pragmatic moments of American policy making. Many Americans during the 1960s-1980s however came to see in Israel an ally in a global struggle against the Soviets and their orbit of influence which included some of Israeli’s major enemies, such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Palestinian Liberation Organizations. By the time the Cold War ended, Iraq, and to some extent Syria, continued to be America’s antagonists and Israel had become almost a traditional ally of the United States. To abandon America’s support of Israel would have required a drastic shift in American policy, just at a time when evangelical influence on American life was reaching a zenith. To comprehend the almost incredible relationship that has developed between messianically-oriented American Christians and Israel, one should look upon the enchantment at least in its initial stages as “a marriage of convenience.” Evangelical Christians have perceived the creation of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine and the building of the Temple by the Jews as necessary steps towards the realization of the messianic age. Similarly, Jewish activists and Israeli leaders have seen in the Christian premillennialist groups unexpected but welcome allies, whose motivation they did not fully comprehend. The important thing for Israeli leaders has been the Christian evangelical willingness to support their cause. The phenomenon of Christians supporting the Israeli cause on behalf of their faith is full of paradoxes. Evangelical Christians insist on the exclusivity of their faith as the only true fulfillment of God’s commands and as the only means to assure salvation. In their view, only those who undergo a personal experience of conversion and accept Jesus as their personal Savior will be saved and be granted eternal life. The evangelical Christian relation to the Jews has therefore been characterized by conflicting sentiments, one supportive and appreciative, and the other dismissive and patronizing. Evangelical Christians have viewed the Jews as the people who failed to recognize and accept the true Messiah, depriving themselves of eternal life and sound moral guidelines. Evangelical Christians have maintained many of the stereotypes of Jews in Western Christian culture and have expressed at times unfavorable opinions on that people. As their involvement with the Jews and Israel intensified throughout the 1970s-2000s their opinion of Jews improved. Nonetheless, evangelical Christians persisted in evangelizing the Jews and missions to the Jews have become the twin sister of pro-Israel activity, deriving from the same theological roots. Christian support for Israel has grown considerably since 1967, fueled by the excitement of the Six-Day War, which was seen as furthering a great cause, the unfolding of the messianic age and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. It is not yet clear how such Christians may react to a serious crisis in the life of Israel or to a radical change of policies on the part of its leaders. During the 1990s-2000s, peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians resulted in the placing of large parts of Judea and Samaria under Palestinian control and an Israeli promise to evacuate Jewish settlements. This has caused some concern among Christian supporters of Israel, but not yet a crisis. In the early 2000s, evangelical Christians expecting the second coming of Jesus have remained firm in their faith just as before. However, one cannot tell what would happen if Israel gave up its control of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Would evangelical Christians abandon or at least modify their understanding that Israel was created for a purpose? Would they continue to be Israel’s ardent friends and supporters?

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