Richard Hughes, a 23-year-old senior at Simmons College in Louisville, Kentucky, one of America’s 101 historically black colleges and universities, sat in a gym in Alfei Menashe last week with dozens of other Christian US college students and heard something he did not expect: appreciation for US President Donald Trump.
“We heard a lady from Alfei Menashe who told us about the reaction here to Trump’s decision on Jerusalem,” he said. “She told us that people here were all excited, and I was thinking, wait a minute, that is not what CNN told me.”
When the issue of Palestinian rioting over the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital came up, the speaker downplayed it, saying, “‘They riot all the time, we’re kind of used to that.’ From watching the TV back home, I thought I was coming to a war zone,” Hughes said. “And to hear her say ‘we like Donald Trump for that,’ I was like, ‘Wow, that is not really quite the case for me in America, coming from an Afro-American context.”
Hughes was one of 470 students from 40 US universities and Christian colleges in Israel last week as part of a program aimed at Christian students called Passages, a two-and-half-year-old project modeled roughly around Birthright. But while Birthright aims to bring Jewish students to Israel, Passages’ goal is to bring believing Christians who want to deepen their faith and get a knowledge of Israel and the Middle East.
For Hughes, a student pastor at a Louisville church, the primary motivation for joining the trip was religious.
“I’m here to get a better understanding of the natural context of the Bible, to see it in first person, rather than taking the word of the commentaries and classic books,” he said. “I want to see the land where Jesus and the prophets of the times walked. I want to see what it was like, for instance, to walk up the mountain that goes to the Temple.”
In the process, as the experience in Alfei Menashe illustrated, Hughes also got a taste of modern Israel. And precisely that, said Passages executive-director Scott Phillips, is what the program is about.
THE 10-DAY trip, Phillips said, is a “hybrid,” a “fifty-fifty mix” of the biblical and the modern – on the one hand trying to “strengthen the faith of the Christian college students,” and on the other hand trying to “connect them with modern Israel.”
The first goal is achieved by visiting the religious sites, by having Bible study on the buses; and the second, by traveling to the borders with Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, visiting the Knesset and Yad Vashem, and hearing from a wide array of speakers representing a spectrum of different views about Israel, the conflict with the Palestinians, and Jewish-Christian relations.
Phillips, who worked formerly as the Midwest Christian Outreach director for AIPAC, said Passages is very clear and upfront with the students about its goals and orientation.
“We tell the students that we want to be honest with them, and that we see Israel as a good place. We tell them that is who we are, it is what we do. We tell them we hope they believe that it is a good place when they leave, but that on the trip we are going to be non-prescriptive, and we are going to offer them various perspectives.”
Phillips said that he does not use the term “pro-Israel,” because “a lot of times that can connote that we are anti someone else. And that is something that this demographic say they are very concerned about.”
The demographic Phillips referred to consists of younger Evangelicals, those whose support for Israel – according to recent polls – is “waning or neutralizing.”
One of the founders of the program is Rivka Kidron, who served from 2009 to 2013 as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s adviser for Diaspora and Christian affairs. During that time she met numerous Evangelical leaders, and it became clear – as a result of the polling and anecdotal evidence – that the members of the younger generation were not as supportive of Israel as their parents, and that “if we didn’t do something to change that, we would lose support from that community in the future.”
Kidron said there were numerous reasons for the shift, including a media environment where there is more “biased and negative” coverage of Israel than in the past. “So unless they connect personally and learn firsthand, they don’t have the opportunity to understand the narrative beyond what they hear in the news. Passages serves as an antidote to what they are seeing,” she said.
The two sponsors of the program, which has brought 3,000 carefully selected students to Israel since the summer of 2015, are the Museum of the Bible, which just opened its doors in Washington in November, and the Philos Project, a New York-based project that defines itself as “promoting positive Christian engagement in the Middle East.”
Vivian Hughbanks, the communications director for the Philos Project, helped staff the recent trip. Asked to define its goals, she replied, “To reconnect Christians to the Middle East. We see Christianity as a religion of the Middle East. The Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity, and we want Christians around America to have a good connection [to it].”
As to whether the hope is that this will then be translated into political support for Israel, Robert Nicholson, the executive director of the Philos Project, responded, “We support the State of Israel because we support the Jewish people and their right to live as a people on their homeland. We are committed to a holistic view of the region that is based on pluralism and rule of law. We support the Jewish people and any other ethnic or religious community that is committed to living next door to their neighbors in peace.”
Practically, many of the Passages alumni do get involved in Israeli advocacy when they return home. For instance, the leadership of the AIPAC chapter at Texas A&M, a university with some 70,000 students but only a few hundred Jews, is composed of a number of Christian students involved with Passages.
Each Passages participant pays $500 for the trip, plus $100 tips for drivers and tour guides, and domestic plane transportation to the airport from where their flight for Israel departs.
PHILLIPS SAID Passages turns to administrators at the numerous Christian colleges in the US, or to partners it works with at non-Christian public or private universities, targeting students with leadership potential. Typically, he said, there are twice as many applicants as places on the bus.
The result of this selective process, said Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, who often speaks to these groups, is a very mature group of people interested in coming to Israel to learn and for their own religious growth, more than to simply have a good time.
Stern characterized the Evangelical community as a “strategic asset for Israel,” but one whose continued support should not be taken for granted.
“You need to work to create and preserve that support,” he said. “Passages takes the future Evangelical leadership and gives them knowledge about Israel, which in turn creates a degree of commitment.”
Asked if he is not concerned, as some Jews are, that Evangelical support is tied into an eschatological scenario that sees Jews converting to Christianity at the end of days, Stern said simply, “The theology does not interest me.
“I am aware of it, but I don’t think it challenges us,” he explained. “Israel is strong enough to deal with any theology.”
The students, Phillips said, are cautioned against proselytizing on the trip, and are informed about the sensitivity of this issue in Israel, and why Jews find it so offensive.
Asked if it is difficult for the students to accept this policy, he said that they understand it.
“I think we have to step back and realize a lot of them have never met a Jew before in their life, and they just don’t know what Jewish people believe,” Phillips said, explaining that 60% of the students come from small rural Christian colleges. “We don’t have an issue with this.”
Phillips, who grew up in the Dallas area and went to a Christian high school and college, said he never met a Jew until he came to Israel at the age of 22. He characterized as a “mixed bag” the motivations propelling the students to come on the program.
“The majority come because they are committed Christians, they want to see the Bible come alive. They care about their faith, they are serious about their faith, and they want to take the next step – coming to Israel is a catalyst for their faith,” he said.
The other main group, he said, are students who are “serious about their faith” but also very interested in international relations and the Middle East. “We get a lot of students like that – depending on the school – who are interested in the modern piece.”
The smallest group, he said, are those who are “skeptical,” those who say, “I’ve heard a lot about this Israeli-Palestinian thing, and want to find out about it myself.”
Passages, he said, is suited to answer the needs of all three.•
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