Evangelicals were lukewarm on Netanyahu – poll

The survey is the first to analyze how American Evangelicals feel about the end of Netanyahu’s 12-year era.

EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN pilgrims and tourists reach for the sky at a 2019 religious retreat in Nazareth (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN pilgrims and tourists reach for the sky at a 2019 religious retreat in Nazareth
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Fewer than half of American Evangelicals believe that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu improved Israel’s relationship with American Christians, according to a survey published last week by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

The survey is the first to analyze how American Evangelicals feel about the end of Netanyahu’s 12-year era, specifically asking whether the former prime minister improved Israel’s relationship with American Christians and whether his departure will hurt the relationship between Israel and Evangelicals.

Only 22.4% of Evangelicals and born-again Christians said they view Netanyahu “extremely favorably,” giving him a 10 on a scale of one to 10. However, the majority (74%) gave him a ranking of six or higher.

When asked if they believed Netanyahu improved the relationship between Israel and Evangelicals, only 45.8% said yes. More than a third (38.6%) said they did not know and 15.6% said he did not improve the relationship.

When questioned if the former prime minister’s departure would harm relations, only 13.4% said it would “hurt a lot.” Another 33.2% said it would “hurt a little.”

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset plenum, October 4, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset plenum, October 4, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The survey was conducted from July 8-22 by Professors Kirill Bumin and Motti Inbari and included responses from 1,011 self-identified Evangelical and born-again Christians, with a reported margin of error of +/– 2.9%. The results of the survey, which was commissioned by Chosen People Ministries and the Alliance for the Peace of Jerusalem, were made public last week.

Bumin said that despite how it might have seemed from media reports, Evangelical knowledge of Netanyahu is “very thin.”

“Familiarity is surface deep at most, and a lot of these expressions of support may have been propaganda-based rather than factually based,” Bumin said, though he added that the former prime minister was “generally seen as a hawkish and strong leader and that resonates with American conservatives and Americans in general.”

He noted that Netanyahu was seen as “someone who has military prowess and a willingness to use military force to defend Jewish and Israeli interests.... Carrying a big stick is a sign of a strong leader and Americans like that.”

The study also looked at Evangelical reaction to former US president Donald Trump and his policies toward Israel. It found that the majority (53.3%) of Evangelical and born-again respondents felt the Trump administration’s policies did not change their views on Israel. A third (35.4%) said it made them more supportive of Israel. Strikingly, more than a tenth of respondents (11.3%) said that Trump’s policies made them more supportive of the Palestinians.

“Trump was a polarizing figure for the Evangelical community,” Bumin said. “Some Evangelicals were willing to set aside his personal flaws in order to promote their policy agenda when it came to abortion or religious freedom, but others were not willing to do so.”

Finally, the survey also looked at how President Joe Biden will impact the relationship between Israel and the US in general. It found that half (49%) said Biden will harm that relationship – 29.4% said it will harm it “a lot,” and 19.4% said it will harm it “a little.”

The survey revealed some interesting shifts among the Evangelical community in general, highlighting a growing diversity among the community.

“Much of our research over last four years has been geared toward dispelling this perception that all Evangelicals are white, pro-Trump, conservative, conspiracy theorists and so on and so forth,” Bumin explained. “This narrow view has been propagated by mainstream media for some time.”

HE SAID that for the last four or five years – partially because of Trump but not only – “momentous changes” are taking place among the Evangelicals.

For example, the survey found that a third (32.2%) of respondents considered their political ideology to be moderate or middle of the road. Only 41.1% described themselves as conservative, while 25.9% said they were liberal.

Moreover, only 36% said they were Republican, compared to 37% who said they were Democrats.

These shifts could have to do with what appears to be a decline in support by Evangelicals for the State of Israel, although by and large respondents said they believe that Jews are God’s chosen people and that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews.

When asked, “Do you believe God’s covenant with the Jewish people remains intact today?” 67.2% said that they do believe so. Similarly, when asked, “Do you believe the Jewish people today have the right to the Land of Israel by the virtue of the covenant God made with Abraham?” 68.2% said that they do.

The survey, however, did highlight that “a new generation of Evangelicals are less supportive of Israel than their parents and grandparents,” said Dr. Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries.

Overall, support for Israel among Evangelicals was at 50% - 35.4% who said they have “very strong” support for the country, 10.8% who said they have support and 13.8% who said they “learn toward” supporting Israel.

Nearly a third of respondents (30.6%) said they support neither Israel nor the Palestinians, and all other respondents said they lean toward or are supportive of the Palestinians.

Bumin said that the last time the researchers conducted a similar survey in 2018, they found that 75% at least leaned toward supporting Israel – a difference of 25%.

“That is a sizable drop,” he said. “Part of this drop is accounted for by differences in the information environment those samples encountered.”

In 2018, the survey was conducted in the aftermath of Trump’s announcement that he would move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This most recent survey was conducted in the aftermath of the Hamas-Israel conflict, which sparked a rise in anti-Israel sentiment among even mainstream media and certainly among social media activists in the US.

In addition, respondents to the 2021 survey were slightly younger than in the 2018 survey, which could account for some of the difference.

However, Bumin said this could likely not account for the total percentage decline.

“Based on conversations with a variety of church leaders, changes are taking place rapidly,” he said. “Younger people did not grow up at a time when Israel was a small country surrounded by hostile nations. They grew up with an Israel they see as a strong, capable country abusing what looks like weak Palestinians suffering under occupation.... Age is one of the most important influences on support for Israel.”

When asked if he believed that the younger generation might shift as they age and follow in their parents’ footsteps to become more pro-Israel, Bumin said that is the “million-dollar question.”

He described two options, one in which the younger, less pro-Israel cohort persists that way the rest of their lives, and another in which they age and develop more conservative and pro-Israel views.

“If you want my hypothesis,” he said, “my expectation is that they will be less supportive even as they get older.”