Why hasn’t Netanyahu stopped the widening Israel-Evangelical schism? - opinion

Over the past few months, previously latent tensions between extremist Jewish groups and Christians have flared into open conflicts.

 JEWISH ACTIVISTS clash with police during a protest against a Christian conference, outside the Davidson Center in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 28. (photo credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
JEWISH ACTIVISTS clash with police during a protest against a Christian conference, outside the Davidson Center in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 28.
(photo credit: Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Could Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inability to effectively control his government lead to a rift between Israel and the evangelical Christian community, precisely when the country needs steadfast allies more than ever?

Over the past few months, previously latent tensions between extremist Jewish groups and Christians have flared into open conflicts, resulting in incidents affecting various branches of the Christian community. These events have targeted evangelical volunteers engaged in activities within Israel and residents of Orthodox and Armenian Christian enclaves in the Old City and northern Israel.

Some have linked the recent surge in explicit hostility to the rise of the ruling coalition, which includes several far-Right factions like Noam, Otzma Yehudit, and certain members of the Religious Zionist Party. These parties are staunch proponents of safeguarding Israel’s Orthodox Jewish identity and have openly opposed the public presence of Christianity.

Christian-Jewish hostility in Israel

A series of incidents, ranging in severity, have been reported since the new government was elected. One notable occurrence involved Deputy Mayor Arieh King leading a group of devout Jews to the Western Wall, chanting “Missionaries, go home” as evangelical Christians attempted to celebrate Pentecost and pray for peace in Jerusalem.

More recently, at the Kotel, a Western Wall Heritage Foundation employee asked a Christian abbot accompanying Germany’s education minister to conceal his cross – an incident captured by a German reporter and widely circulated on social media.

 The Western Wall is seen in a photo taken February 9, 2023  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Western Wall is seen in a photo taken February 9, 2023 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In more forceful instances, an IDF soldier spat at the Armenian archbishop and other Christians during a November procession in the Old City. In December, the Maronite community center in Ma’alot-Tarshiha suffered vandalism, with the culprits still unidentified. In January, Jewish teenagers were arrested for vandalizing graves at the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion.

Discriminatory graffiti has appeared on Jerusalem’s Armenian community buildings, and acts of vandalism have affected the Church of the Flagellation. In a profoundly distressing incident, an individual attacked priests with an iron bar at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Gethsemane.

Last month, authorities denied entry to thousands of Christian pilgrims seeking to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration at the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Moreover, the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem was forced to go to the media due to an unexplained decision by the Interior Ministry to halt the issuance of work or clergy visas to permanent staff members of ICEJ and similar organizations, effectively “squeezing us out of the country,” as David Parsons, ICEJ vice president and senior spokesperson, put it.

Community and church leaders believed until now that most of these incidents came from a small minority of teenage yeshiva students who were being taught Jewish superiority in their schools. However, the sentiment is that things are starting to shift.

“WHY ARE these attacks spiking now?” asked Middle East analyst Joel Rosenberg, an evangelical Christian who lives in Jerusalem, in a recent column for his website All Arab News.

“It appears these extremists feel emboldened by the rise of their allies like National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich into the Israeli government, and Arieh King as deputy mayor of Jerusalem.”

Indeed, Father Francesco Patton, who serves as the Vatican’s Custodian of the Holy Land, told an Israeli TV station earlier this year that politicians are at least partially responsible for the rise in anti-Christian sentiment.

“Those who have power are helping to create a hostile environment for Christians,” Patton told Israel’s Channel 13. “I hear so many times people telling me, asking why do you stay here, go back to your country. This place is ours; it’s not yours. Go back to your country.”

The Christian community has thrived more in Israel than in most parts of the Middle East. The Israel Democracy Institute reported in 2022 that the Christian population in Israel had grown by 1.5% in the last year, and 84% of Christians reported being satisfied with their lives in this country.

In contrast, the Christian communities living under the Palestinian Authority are dwindling, with recent data showing that the Christian population of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, has shrunk from 80% to 12% in the roughly quarter century since the PA took control of the city.

The recent attacks in Israel are even more striking, given the historically close ties between the prime minister and the Christian community.

“When I say we have no greater friends than Christian supporters of Israel, I know you’ve always stood with us,” Benjamin Netanyahu told Christians United for Israel members at its annual conference in 2017. “You stand with us because you stand with yourselves because we represent that common heritage of freedom that goes back thousands of years.”

“Israel has no better friend in America than you,” the premier added.

Netanyahu’s chief adviser, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, went as far as to suggest in 2021 that Israelis should prioritize the support of evangelicals over Left-leaning American Jews.

“People have to understand that the backbone of Israel’s support in the United States is the evangelical Christians,” Dermer said at a Makor Rishon conference. “It’s true because of numbers and their passionate and unequivocal support for Israel.”

According to the Pew Research Center, at least a quarter of Americans are Evangelical Protestants. According to a separate poll, 86% of white Evangelicals said they felt warm toward Israelis.

A much lower number of Catholics and Orthodox Christians have warm feelings toward the Jewish state.

Christian support has been critical to Netanyahu and past right-wing governments, in part because only around 2% of Americans are Jewish. Although a 2020 poll by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that 80% of American Jews are pro-Israel, a more recent Pew Research Center report showed that fewer than half of US Jews give Netanyahu “excellent” or “good” ratings for his leadership.

The evangelicals prompted former US president Donald Trump to move his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognize the Golan Heights, and pass the Taylor Force Act to help ensure that terrorists do not receive funds from the United States.

Multiple polls indicate a shift among younger evangelicals toward increasing pro-Palestinian sentiment and a general distancing from Israel. For the first time in recent years, a rising star Republican candidate – Vivek Ramaswamy, who ranks third according to RealClearPolitics polling – has issued a call to end US aid to Israel eventually.

NETANYAHU MOVED swiftly this week to seize control of Israel’s back-channel diplomacy when Foreign Minister Eli Cohen sparked an international crisis by prematurely publicizing his meeting with his Libyan counterpart, possibly scuttling normalization efforts between the two countries.

But the prime minister has yet to put the brakes on his coalition members’ anti-Christian actions.

In an interview with Israel Radio this week, former New York consul general Asaf Zamir warned that comments by far-Right members of Netanyahu’s government were costing Israel friends and allies throughout the US, in places no one had even heard about.

Unless Netanyahu takes control of the steering wheel, decades of work building effective Christian support for Israel could take a dangerous U-turn and unravel. 

The writer is deputy CEO – strategy and innovation for The Jerusalem Post and a senior correspondent. She also co-hosts the Inside Israel Innovation podcast.