Israel Solidarity Rally. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty

December 4, 2023   5 mins

When Jerry Seinfeld took his family to an “anti-terror fantasy camp” in the West Bank in 2018 to “play war games with the IDF”, the backlash was swift and impassioned. Intrigued, the following year, I travelled to the controversial Gush Etzion settlement myself. There, like Seinfeld, I took up pretend rifles alongside a bunch of American tourists, while a square-jawed former IDF commander took us through a series of drills designed to teach us “how to fight terrorists”.

Halfway through, our commander paused to ask why a bunch of Americans had come to Israel to shoot things — after all, we can go shooting any time we like. Everybody laughed. For the tourists, the fantasy of the camp had nothing to do with firing a weapon or even taking down a “terrorist”; it was about imagining being a part of a state permanently engaged in a cosmic struggle. My brothers-in-cardboard-arms were not American Jews, but a group of Christian Zionists, who saw themselves as being on a spiritual march towards victory that at some point would end in Israel.

Recent polling from the University of Maryland found that American evangelical Christians largely account for the positive GOP’s regard for Israel; without them, Republican attitudes on the subject look a lot like the rest of America’s. Following October 7, the Ethics and Religion Liberty Commission, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, represented those views in a statement signed by over 2,000 church leaders which declared that they “fully support Israel’s right and duty to defend itself against further attack”.

American evangelicals have a long and complicated history towards the Jewish people; one which changed significantly with the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. This was the fulfilment of a well-understood prophecy about the End of Days, which holds that the modern nation of Israel had to be created, and had to prosper, in order for Jesus to return.

This prophetic worldview explicitly meant taking over the Palestinian territories. Destroying the Dome of the Rock, where the Al-Aqsa mosque sits today, would allow Jews to rebuild the Temple Mount, which “the lawless one” — often understood as the Antichrist — would according to the prophecy, enter and proclaim himself God. This, in turn, will lead God to reveal himself and destroy the false prophet.

The prophecy of the End Times is variously interpreted and hotly debated, but essentially it says that that Jesus will return to take Christians into heaven by means of a rapture, before ruling over Earth in a seven-year tribulation. According to this belief system, only Christians will be saved.

So where does this leave the Jews? I asked Daniel G. Hummel, a historian of American religion and foreign relations. He points to the intervention of the evangelical Christian theologian G. Douglas Young, who in 1956 founded the American Institute of Holy Land Studies, now known as Jerusalem University College. For Young’s Jewish neighbours, the evangelical conception of the End Times was a “really horrible situation”, Hummel explains. To get around this, Young came up with the idea of a “second rapture”, which would occur exactly halfway through the seven years of tribulation, and would “let all the Jews escape what was coming, which is called the Great Tribulation — where the really, really bad stuff happens”.

Young was, at the time, a fairly marginal figure, both theologically and politically, but his early work in finding common cause with the fledgling Jewish state laid the foundation for the evolving theology of Christian Zionism — which has ultimately shaped US foreign policy towards Israel. The relatively new concept of a Judeo-Christian heritage became useful in the Cold War. Godless communists had already taken over Russia and China — and Arab nationalists seemed sympathetic to them. Israel came to be seen as a bulwark against an encroaching red wave. Prior to 1945, evangelicals had by and large not voted, seeing themselves as above worldly politics. As patriotic Americans, evangelical leaders began to take a keen interest in foreign policy in light of the communist threat.

But Christian Zionism and antisemitism were not mutually exclusive. In leaked tapes from a 1972 conversation between leading evangelist Billy Graham and Richard Nixon, Graham told the President: “Not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country. And I have no power, no way to handle them, but I would stand up if under proper circumstances.”

A year after Graham aired his feelings about “swarming” Jews, and probably for political expediency, he made it clear that his followers needed to leave Jews out of their efforts to convert people. The move was hugely controversial among evangelicals at the time, but laid the groundwork for strong relations between them and Israel: by the Eighties, up-and-coming Israeli politicians, including Benjamin Netanyahu, were attending prayer breakfasts.

The rationale behind good Israeli-American relations evolved after the fall of the Berlin Wall. By the Nineties, where once the state had been a bulwark against communism, it was now seen as critical in countering radical Islam. Israel, with all of its walls and borders, knew all about fighting Jihad — a project that became all the more urgent in America after 9/11, with all its prophetic implications. And by this time, the evangelical “Moral Majority”, now firmly steeped in Christian Zionism, was a much-discussed part of the Republican voting coalition.

In 2006, Texas preacher John Hagee, who hails from the Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition, founded the powerful lobby group Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which today claims over 10 million members. Even prior to the current conflict, he delivered ecstatic sermons prophesying a “thrilling” apocalyptic future, where Christians are raptured before an attack on Israel by Iran and Russia, and the Apocalypse begins. It is a reference to a highly contested passage described in Ezekiel, where God will make his presence known against foreign invaders through a series of natural disasters, leading to the destruction of the Biblical lands. “What you do to Israel, god will do to you,” Christians United for Israel warned Hamas after October 7. “Joy will come because he who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.”

It was these Christian Zionists who Donald Trump was courting when he moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018. In an official statement, he called it “a long-overdue step to advance the peace process and to work towards a lasting agreement”. But when speaking off the cuff, Trump revealed a more cunning political calculation. “That’s for the evangelicals,” he told a Wisconsin rally in 2020, before marvelling that “the evangelicals are more excited by that than Jewish people”. As one pastor explained at the time, the re-establishment of Israel’s political boundaries “kick-starts the end times into motion”.

But it’s important to understand that Christian Zionism is a spectrum, says Walker Robins, a scholar of the phenomenon; for most evangelicals, it means that “the priority is to stand with the Jewish people”. Others, however, “really do traffic in somewhat classical, antisemitic tropes”, which are not always easily detectable. Thinking back to my visit to the IDF fantasy camp, the intense philosemitism of the Christian Zionists there was unsettling. The American leader told us that “every Jew is a miracle”, and as such, that we were witnessing “miracles all over the nation of Israel”.

Historically, Jews have all too often been portrayed as less than human; today’s Christian Zionists superhumanise them, which may be an improvement on the past, but is still antisemitic. According to certain schools of evangelical thought, Jews must be protected as critical infrastructure on the road to fulfilling prophecy. As Robins has pointed out, in this conception, “Jewish people are around for a specific purpose”, but are in themselves expendable instruments: a literal means to the End.

Elle Hardy is a freelance journalist who’s reported from North Korea and the former Soviet Union. She is the author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World.