November 18, 2011

Targeting Evangelicals for ‘Palestine’

The following article appeared on the Front Page Magazine website and was reposted with permission.

It seems like the Religious Left believes Israel is the problem and Palestine is the answer. (Photo credit: IRD)


Certain that U.S. support for Israel depends on pro-Israel American evangelicals, the Religious and Evangelical Left are targeting evangelicals with their latest arguments for discrediting Israel.

This week, “Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding” (EMEU) convened at a San Francisco Presbyterian church to hash out their latest anti-Israel strategies. Ostensibly the problem as they identify it is that too many U.S. evangelicals are wedded to Old Testament promises of a perpetual Promised Land for the Jews. Anti-Israel activists like to showcase besieged Middle East Christians as arguments against a Jewish Israel, as though Judaism rather than radical Islam were their chief threat. They also like to portray Christian Zionists as motivated by apocalyptic end-times scenarios.

Church of England priest Stephen Sizer, author of Christian Zionism: Roadmap to Armageddon, was an advertised featured speaker at the EMEU conference. So too was Tom Getman, a former official with World Vision​, a global evangelical relief group, and former staffer to the late liberal Republican Senator Mark Hatfield. Earlier this fall, Getman helped introduce a Washington preview for a new anti-Israel film aimed at evangelicals called “Little Town of Bethlehem.” The film highlights anti-“occupation” Palestinian activist Sami Awad, whose Holy Land Trust advocates resistance to Israeli power through non-violence. Also featured is a former Israeli Defense Force helicopter pilot who renounced his military work because of potential harm to Palestinian civilians. This ostensible call to pacifism is powerfully appealing to left-leaning evangelicals who already think world peace demands a disarmed America.

Also promoting the film is Lynne Hybels, wife of Chicago-area Willow Creek megachurch pastor Bill Hybels​. She praised “Little Town of Bethlehem” in a September Huffington Post column. “Nonviolent revolutions overthrew the British in India and the violent defenders of apartheid in South Africa,” she enthused. “It shaped the Civil Rights movement in the US. Of the thirteen nonviolent revolutions in communist nations that occurred in 1989-90 only one failed–in China.” Hybels, who is also affiliated with Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, hopes that non-violence can similarly bring down Israeli power. She boasted that she and her pastor husband had recently screened the film in their own home, helping to create a “new kind of global conversation.”

“Little Town of Bethlehem” follows in the wake of “With God On Our Side,” a more rambunctious frontal assault on Christian Zionism featuring, among others, Rev. Sizer and evangelical Wheaton University Professor Gary Burge, who is also affiliated with “Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding.” In an EMEU video promo, Burge recalled large audiences at his evangelical campus for both films. And he declared “momentum is on our side,” as he cited evangelical publishers now willing to criticize Israel. He also cited Jimmy Carter as an “evangelical Christian” who has helpfully promoted a new, more anti-Israel perspective. Burge likewise praised Palestinian Anglican cleric Naim Ateek​ of the notoriously anti-Israel, Jerusalem-based Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center.

Rev. Ateek was recently in the Washington, D.C. area to address anti-Israel church activists for Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA), a group founded by former Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning. “We believe we [Palestinians] are living under empire today and it is important to understand how empire operates and resist it,” a steely Ateek declared, according to a report from my colleague Jeff Walton, who attended the event. (Here’s Walton’s account.) “Due to the impact of pro-Israel forces, justice is hindered,” he ominously complained. “Some people have become captives in Congress – they need liberation from these forces.” He claimed: “Israel today is moving towards a racist state,” requiring anti-apartheid style boycotts and divestment. “This is the future,” Ateek confidently predicted of increasing numbers of U.S. Christians turning against Israel.

The D.C. area Sabeel event also featured Jewish author Mark Braverman, whose 2010 book Fatal Embrace outlines how the intransigence of Jews and pro-Israel Christians hinders Mid-East peace. Accustomed to old-time Religious Left support for anti-Israel causes, he was excited about emerging anti-Israel evangelicals. “This politically is extremely important and it’s making a difference,” he exuded. “There are several huge mega churches whose pastors are ready to come on board – we’re talking critical mass, access to the White House.” As examples of evangelical activism, Braverman pointed to Tom Getman in the audience and also praised Wheaton professor Gary Burge. “Talk about power – bridging the gap between evangelicals and the mainline,” Braverman rejoiced.

Of course, the old Religious Left is continuing its long-time anti-Israel emphasis. Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schori and Evangelical Lutheran Church Presiding Bishop Mark Harrison this week led a “Churches for Middle East Peace” delegation to the White House to urge U.S. support for dividing Jerusalem between Israel and a Palestinian nation. But such Mainline prelates rarely speak politically even for their own declining constituencies and are not so much taken seriously.

Pro- and anti-Israel forces recognize that a vital key to U.S. policy towards Israel is evangelicals, who are America’s largest religious demographic. Will films like “Little Town of Bethlehem” and groups like “Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding” successfully neutralize historic pro-Israel sentiment? A certain subset of evangelical elites who are embarrassed by many of their brethren is certainly jumping aboard with a thump. But most are likely to understand that bifurcating a successful, pro-American democracy in favor of an undemocratic, territorially ambitious and resentful “Palestine” is not a magic formula for sustainable peace.


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