Israel should take reciprocal steps for Evangelical support

The way to defeat antisemitism isn't to oppose it, but to promote a love of Jews, an Evangelical leader has said.

Christian pilgrims and tourists react during a religious retreat lead by T.B. Joshua, a Nigerian evangelical preacher on Mount Precipice, Nazareth (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Christian pilgrims and tourists react during a religious retreat lead by T.B. Joshua, a Nigerian evangelical preacher on Mount Precipice, Nazareth
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Support for Israel in the US Evangelical community – while very strong – should not be taken for granted, and Israel should reciprocate by taking steps to improve the lives of Christians living in Israel, Robert Nicholson, co-founder of an organization that brings thousands of Evangelical students to Israel, said this week.
Nicholson is the co-founder of Passages, a “Birthright” fashioned trip for Evangelical College students which brings 3,000 students to the country each year with two primary goals: to provide them with a religious experience, and to foster friendship between Israel and the US.
“Our number one mission is to strengthen the Christian faith of these people, because I believe that a strong American-Christian community, in all of its diversity, is going to make for a strong America, and incidentally will lead to that second mission, which is a strong American-Israeli relationship,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson was in Israel this week along with 1,100 students from universities and colleges across the US on 26 buses, touring the country for the first time, visiting religious sites, and hearing from speakers about both ancient and modern Israel. Passages, in its fifth year, will by the end of 2020 have brought 10,000 Christian students on a nine-day tour of the country.
While polling suggests that younger Evangelicals may be less supportive of Israel than their parents – partly because they are less well versed in the Bible – Nicholson cautioned against taking this “too far.”
Although the younger generation may be less “overtly Zionist,” then older Evangelicals, that does not make them “anti-Zionist or pro-Palestinian,” he said. Rather, there is just a preference among some for a middle position, saying they support both sides.
“I think this is a cultural shift, generational shift that is happening in the Christian community,” he said. Nicholson said that among college-aged Evangelicals today there is a tendency by some to want to seem “softer, not that weird conservative person.” And one area where they may be able to project a more 'open' position is on the Middle East.
He did note, however, that there is less familiarity of the Bible in the current generation of students than in their parents’ generations. Since Evangelical support of Israel is based on a conservative, literal reading of the Bible, less familiarity with the text could translate into less of a connection with Israel.
Especially in American Evangelicalism, he said, there has become less of a focus on scripture, with the worship more experiential – more singing and music – than textual.
“The pastor may read a verse or two from the pulpit, but that is all,” he said, adding that the students may say that the Bible is important, but they are less versed in it.
Nonetheless, he added, Evangelical support for Israel remains strong. But, he said, it should not be taken for granted and Israel should take steps to reciprocate.
Asked what type of reciprocity he had in mind, Nicholson – who is the head of the Philos project, an organization that is “dedicated to promoting positive Christian engagement in the Middle East" – said, “it is probably not what you think.”
“Israel has a very small but great Christian population living inside the country,” he said. “There is a lot more Israel could do for that population, and then talk about what it is doing for them to the global audience.
“I don't need need Israel to go to the US and directly engage those young people,” he added, “just tell a pro-Christian story coming out of Israel, say that here is the affirmative action we are taking for these people.”
The way Israel treats the local Christian community is of great import for Evangelicals abroad, he said, and stories such as one at Christmas that Israel was not going to grant permits to Gazan Christians to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a policy later reversed, has a very negative impact.
Nicholson said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does a very good job at the rhetorical level reaching out to Evangelicals, and that is something that any prime minister should continue.
“The rhetorical piece is always important – sending Christmas greetings, a very basic thing that lets the worldwide Christian community know that you care.”
But, he said, other practical steps would go a long way in shoring up the already strong support.
For instance, he said, Christians in Israel do not have their own education system, and are “lumped in with the Arab educational system, which is Muslim, and they learn Islamic history, not their own history."
Although Christians in Israel do well educationally, he said, “In the realms of culture, identity, religion, they are not being taught their own history and they are kind of without a place ... Investing in education would be a big thing.
He said that another thing that the Christian community also asks for is reunification of family members living on either side of the Green Line.
“These are things that they are asking for, and they are not that hard,” he said. “We are talking about a small number of people who are almost negligible in the overall society.” This type of gesture, he suggested, would go "a long way toward creating even more good will” among Evangelicals.
The New York based Nicholson acknowledged that there are substantial differences in the way Israeli Jews and American Jews view Evangelicals.
Passages co-founder Robert Nicholson
Passages co-founder Robert Nicholson
Evangelicals and Jews in America come from the complete opposite ends of the social spectrum, even in terms of geography, he said, noting that many American Jews have never spent any time with an Evangelical.
“So for them the Evangelical is almost a caricature, they imagine what they [the Evangelical] thinks, believe, and how they think about them as Jews.”
Asked whether Israeli Jews understand, and are less fearful of Evangelicals than American Jews are, Nicholson said that in his experience the answer is yes.
“But it is not because Israelis understand them better, Israelis are just more pragmatic," he said. "They are not so worried about the precise theology or the motivation – they may have opinions about that, but it is just not that important to them. In the situation that Israel finds itself in, beggars can't be choosers, so I think many Israelis, Left or Right, whether they are super excited about it or not, are grateful for it [Evangelical political support]. Their attitude is like, 'the more friends, the better, so thank you'.”
Nicholson said that in this year's tour for students, one issue upon which there was greater focus than in years past was antisemitism.
For many of the students, he said, antisemitism was always something that happened during World War II. But now, following antisemitic incidents in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City and Monsey, it is something more real, more relevant.
They are paying attention to it, and – as a result – a trip to Yad Vashem this year resonated in a different way.
“There is all this talk about antisemitism, and combating antisemitism, and way most people go about it is to be anti-antisemitic. What we think is more logical is to fan the flames of philosemitism – fight the hatred of Jews, with the love of Jews.”
And that, he said, is an area where Passages contributes.