Divine Privileges: How Religion Plays Role In American Support For Israel

Highly religious Americans tend to be much more sympathetic toward Israel, which is seen as a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies entitling it to divine privileges other nations may not claim

Al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital was attacked ahead of US President Joe Biden's arrival in Tel Aviv to express solidarity with Israel.
Al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital was attacked ahead of US President Joe Biden’s arrival in Tel Aviv to express solidarity with Israel.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

An air strike on Gaza’s Al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital killed hundreds of people as Israel continued an intense bombing amid a siege on the Palestinian enclave as part of a series of actions amounting to war crimes. The toll from the strike was the highest of any single bombing during the current Israeli bombing campaign. The strike came as United States (US) President Joe Biden was due to fly to Tel Aviv to reaffirm the American support for Israel.

Biden, who declared ‘rock-solid’ support for Israel and deployed military ships and aircraft in the region after Hamas launched the worst attack on America’s closest ally in decades, expressed outrage and sadness over the hospital strike. His French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, also issued a condemnation saying nothing can justify striking a hospital and targeting civilians.

The West is, however, unlikely to correct its course and stop Israel’s blanket backing, which has contributed to the humanitarian crisis. This was reflected in the attempt to blame Palestinians for the hospital strike disregarding how Israeli leadership including President Isaac Herzog assigned guilt for Hamas’s attack, saying an entire nation was responsible. He called ‘rhetoric about civilians not aware not involved’ absolutely ‘not true’, effectively holding Palestinians collectively responsible and deserving of Israel’s disproportionate response.

In the US, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called for Gaza’s wholesale destruction, saying they were in a religious war while asking Israelis to do whatever the hell they have to do and level the place. In a piece in The Guardian Chris McGreal, who covered the Rwandan genocide as a reporter, warned the language being used to describe Palestinians is genocidal.

Israel’s Back

The US, the world’s sole superpower, has been Israel’s strongest supporter in the conflict rooted in the control of the Holy Land with religious significance to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The American support for Israel has shielded Israelis and hindered efforts to resolve the conflict dating back to 1948 when the Jewish state was created following the influx of Jews and uprooting of over 700,000 Palestinians from their ancestral homeland with the collusion of Western powers.

As a permanent United Nations (UN) Security Council member, the US has since 1970 used its veto power to block resolutions censuring Israel. President Donald Trump openly sided with Israel, ending the American claims of being a neutral peace broker. His plan for the region included recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem including the holy sites, blocking Palestinian refugees’ right to return, and suggesting the Palestinian territory in the West Bank would shrink to 70% percent.

The UN General Assembly in 1947 set aside Jerusalem as a corpus separatum (separate body) while recognizing its shared religious significance for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. In defiance of the UN, Israel established its seat of government in West Jerusalem. It captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967 and has since expanded the borders of Jerusalem to annex Palestinian towns.

As part of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the claims to Jerusalem were to be decided in final negotiations. Israel considers all of Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the seat of a Palestinian state. Trump closed the Palestinian mission in Washington and the US consulate in East Jerusalem in a strong show of American support for Israel. His administration passed legislation to block future leaders from waiving the restriction under a 1987 law that banned Palestinians from having a mission in the US.

The US has avoided calling the presence of some 700000 Israelis in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal to avoid the possibility of Israel facing international sanctions over them. Jewish settlements in occupied territory violate international law. President Bill Clinton allowed exemptions for settlement construction in East Jerusalem.

Barack Obama extended American support for Israel by shielded Israelis from movements seeking to penalize Israeli businesses operating in the West Bank. The Biden administration halted a Palestinian-led UN resolution condemning the settlement expansion when in early 2023 Israel moved to construct new settlement homes and legitimize several unauthorized outposts.

The US has been Israel’s leading security collaborator and closest strategic partner. It helps Israel maintain its military superiority in the region. The US government is mandated under law to ensure that any arms sales to other states in the region do not ‘adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge over military threats to Israel.’ It has provided Israel with more cumulative military assistance than it has to any other country since the end of the Second World War.

Over half of all foreign military aid requested for 2022 was earmarked for Israel. The US is committed to providing nearly $4 billion to Israel annually. The US aid to the Palestinians began shrinking under Trump as his administration reduced assistance to the West Bank and Gaza and discontinued contributions to the UN Relief and Works Agency.

The US reiterated its support for Israel despite the formation of the right-wing Israeli government in December 2022 and concerns over democratic backsliding. It has opposed Palestinian bids for statehood at the UN since 2011. The full UN membership for Palestine requires the approval of the Security Council, where the US has a veto.

The Stonewalling

Any scrutiny of the relationship has been blocked by labeling it as anti-Semitism. A Gallup analysis in 2019 showed even among Democrats, who were less sympathetic toward Israel than Republicans, the support for the Jewish state outweighed that for the Palestinians. Religion has a key role in the American Support for Israel. Highly religious Americans tended to be much more sympathetic toward Israel. Another analysis using an aggregate of 2001-2014 Gallup data found that 66% of those who attended religious services weekly or almost weekly said their sympathies were with Israel.

Analysis of Gallup data from 2015-2019 showed that 71% of those who frequently attend religious services were sympathetic to Israel. Republicans remained more positive about Israel partly as they are more religious. Protestants have above-average sympathy for Israel with 70% of them saying so. Trump’s evangelical support base influenced his decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which has much significance in Christian theology and the final events of humankind. Bible literalists and conservative Christians believe Jerusalem has to be under Jewish control for Christ’s return.

George W Bush, a Republican who believed his presidency was part of a divine plan, spoke about a Crusade. He told a friend that he believed God wanted him to run for president. He was convinced he was following God’s will as the leader of a global war against evil. He wanted the US to lead a liberating Crusade in the Middle East and believed this call of history had come to the right country.

Columnist James Carroll in a salon.com piece argued in 2018 that Bush’s use of the term Crusade in 2001 was not a ‘stumble, however inadvertent.’ He insisted it was a ‘crystal-clear declaration of purpose that would soon be aided and abetted by a fervent evangelical cohort within the US military, already primed for holy war.’ Bush would two years later invade Iraq in 2003 on the pretext of non-existent weapons of mass destruction leaving, directly and indirectly, half a million Iraqis dead.

Carroll wrote Bush answered the criminal attacks of 9/11 not by ‘calling on international law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice, but by a declaration of cosmic war aimed at nothing less than the elimination of Islamist evil.’ Carroll underlined labeling it a crusade only underscored the subliminal but potent message. He added a self-avowed secular nation was now to be a crusader, ready to display the profoundly Christian character. Carroll wrote Bush’s Global War on Terror wreaked comparable havoc, leading to almost unimaginable mayhem abroad and a moral collapse at home that Trump personified.

‘Divine Work’

American evangelical support for Israel is such that some churches celebrate in worship Israel’s foundation as much as they celebrate the US Independence Day. The evangelical zeal for Israel had them cheer as a righteous deed Trump’s move to shift the American embassy to Jerusalem.

In July 2021, Calvin Theological Seminary New Testament professor Gary M Burge quoted an evangelical pastor telling him author that Israel was perhaps the second trigger issue that moved the evangelical vote alongside abortion. Burge wrote some saw Trump as another Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who helped Israel return to reclaim the promised land in the Bible. He added such a perception allowed them to look the other way regarding Trump’s moral lapses and it began to look like divine work if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was fulfilling those aspirations with his support.

The Jewish online journal Mosaic noted the first factor of evangelical support was a culture war intent on sweeping away the moral undergirding of modern life. The second was outright support for the modern state of Israel, enjoining Jews and Christians to stand in solidarity. The cause of the modern state of Israel counts certain devout Christians, especially evangelical Protestants, among its most fervent American supporters. It links the faith of practicing Christians and Jews through a shared commitment to the divine provenance of the Jewish homeland.

Such evangelical Zionism is grounded in interpretations of biblical prophecy. Evangelicals understand the establishment of Israel as necessary providing the Jewish people with a geographical home. Naftali Bennett, who briefly replaced Netanyahu as the Prime Minister, threatened to compromise evangelical support for Israel. Christian Zionist Mike Evans wrote a letter to Bennett warning he would fight him every step of the way and that he had the support of evangelicals 100%. He wrote they gave Israel four years of miracles under Trump and that evangelicals delivered.

Burge noted many white evangelicals in America were brimming with suspicion and anxiety. ‘They easily succumb to conspiracy theories and tend to have a dramatic or even apocalyptic view of history. It is as if history itself, and Christian culture, are teetering on the edge of oblivion and every effort is needed to shore up God’s work at this critical time. The United States and Israel are two flashpoints that they watch nervously…’

Evangelical support of Trump continued with a large number believing the 2020 election was fraudulent. Burge wrote that the American political struggle was for many a religious one and that they looked at Israel with this same anxiety wondering if Biden would continue the ‘righteous causes supported by Trump.’ He noted anyone simply raising questions about Israel’s military occupation of millions of Palestinians is labeled anti-Israel or, in some cases, anti-semitic.

In 2006, the Pew Forum found that 70% percent of white evangelicals agreed that Israel was given by God to the Jews. The percentage rose to 82% in 2013. Sixty-three percent said yes in 2005 when asked if has Israel fulfilled Biblical Prophecy. Israel is the largest recipient of conservative evangelical funding estimated to range between $175 and $200 million annually.

Israel is seen as a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, entitling it to divine privileges other nations may not claim. Some evangelicals conflate biblical Israel with modern Israel even as Theodor Herzl, the father of Israeli Zionism, and Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion were atheists but sought to exploit the Bible for political aims. Ben-Gurion studied the Bible to argue for Jewish chosenness and justify Israel’s divine claim to Palestine.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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