Over the past several weeks, the world has witnessed Palestinians continuing to resist forced displacement, apartheid and brutal military occupation. There have been outcries around the world calling for solidarity and to hold the Israeli government accountable. Missing in a lot of the circulating narratives, however, is the indisputable role that the powerful Christian Zionist movement plays, both now and in the long and bloody history of the colonization of Palestine.
Christian Zionists are leading the call for the U.S. to unconditionally support Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians in Jerusalem and Israel’s bombing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Christian Zionist leaders regularly caricature Palestinian resistance to their displacement as “Jew hatred,” appropriating antisemitism to hinder Palestinian rights. Recently, John Hagee, the chairman and founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest pro-Israel lobby group in the U.S., tweeted that Jerusalem and Israel belong to the Jewish people, and encouraged Christians to “take a stand against evil” and show “unconditional love and support for Israel.”
What Is Christian Zionism?
Christian Zionism is by far the largest movement supporting authoritarian policies in the Israeli government outside of Israel, and an essential bloc within the larger U.S. Christian Right. The most politically active Christian Zionist movements are motivated primarily by the belief that Jews taking control over the biblical land of Israel will bring about Jesus’ second coming and the end of the world, when Christians will reach salvation and non-Christians — including Muslims and Jews — will be annihilated.
These End Times theologies have roots in 16th-century Protestantism in Europe, and reflect the colonial context in which they were formed. Christian Zionism as a political movement gained traction as part of the 19th century “Fundamentalist Movement” in Britain and the U.S. when figures, such as Lord Shaftesbury, John Nelson Darby and William Blackstone, began proselytizing the End Times prophecy and conjuring up ideas of a Jewish homeland in Palestine decades before prominent Jewish Zionists called for the same. Britain’s Arthur Balfour, whose Balfour Declaration promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was himself a noted Christian Zionist, as was President Woodrow Wilson, who co-signed the Declaration at the encouragement of Jewish Zionist Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis.
Jewish Zionism is a newer development than Christian Zionism, but alliances were formed between the majority Ashkenazi Jewish Zionists in Europe seeking a Jewish state and the Christian Zionists who were located in the highest offices in the U.S. and British governments. Indeed, it was Christian Zionists who had the imperial and military power necessary to occupy and colonize Palestine at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and it was the League of Nations, led by Western Christian-majority powers, who ultimately partitioned Palestine and Israel. No doubt, Christian Zionist leaders viewed the displacement of Jews out of Europe into Palestine as a convenient solution to the “Jewish question,” whereby the Jewish State would serve as a proxy for Western imperial interests in a geopolitically strategic region, and Jewish bodies used as a sword and shield against a centuries-old Muslim enemy. The colonization of Palestine is rooted in, and largely continues to serve, Western Christian imperialist interests at the expense of Palestinians, Muslims and Jews.
Many Christian Zionists today view the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, which created the Nakba — or expulsion of about 750,000 Palestinians — as a fulfilment of biblical End Times prophecy. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights beginning in 1967 similarly is interpreted as a sign that God is blessing Israel and paving the way for Jesus’ return. Subsequent wars, invasions and offensives have been seen as escalating measures that foreshadow the End Times that will bring Christians into salvation and annihilate non-Christians. In other words, Christian Zionism responds positively to conflict, in particular Israeli State aggression toward Palestinians. Regard for Palestinian land and life — including Palestinian Christians — is absent from Christian Zionism since Jewish rule over Palestine is key to unlocking the End Times.
What Is the Ongoing Impact of Christian Zionism?
Today, Christian Zionists are estimated to number at least in the tens of millions, far greater than the population of world Jewry. In the U.S., Christian Zionists are the most numerous and most right-wing voting bloc for Israel. The largest Christian Zionist organization, CUFI, boasts 10 million members, far eclipsing the 100,000 members belonging to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC, the much more famous pro-Israel lobbying organization. One out of every four adults in the United States identifies as Evangelical Christian, and 80 percent of Evangelical Christians, or 20 percent of the U.S. population, reportedly believe the gathering of millions of Jews by the State of Israel signifies the nearing of Jesus’ second coming. The power of Christian Zionism in the U.S. is summed up in a recent interview with Ron Dermer, a close ally of Israeli right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a former Israeli ambassador to the United States:
The backbone of Israel’s support in the United States is the evangelical Christians. It’s true because of numbers, and also because of their passionate and unequivocal support for Israel…. About 25% of Americans — some people think more — are Evangelical Christians. Less than 2% of Americans are Jews…. If you look just at numbers, you should be spending a lot more time doing outreach to Evangelical Christians than you would to Jews. But also look at the passionate support. For most Evangelicals in the United States, certainly for many of them, Israel is one of the most important issues to them. For some it’s number one. For others, it may be number two or number three…. It’s very rare to hear Evangelicals criticize Israel.
Many of the most egregious and anti-Palestinian policies by the United States are led by Christian Zionists. Former President Donald Trump’s foreign policy on Israel was largely appeasing his Evangelical Christian base who voted for him at a margin of 4:1 (on the other hand, a much smaller number of American Jews — somewhere between 21 percent and 30 percent –voted for Trump). Christian Zionists occupied the highest offices of the Trump administration, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence, and Trump’s four years in office saw dramatic right-wing shifts in U.S. policy on Israel, including the cutting of U.S. funding to the UNRWA — the agency responsible for supporting Palestinian refugees — recognizing Israel’s illegitimate claims to the Golan Heights, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Netanyahu’s right-wing government had wanted to institute some of these changes for years, but it was only because of the Trump administration and its Christian Zionist base that Netanyahu was finally able to do so. While most Christian Zionist money flows through churches and is therefore difficult to track, Christian Zionist funding sends millions of dollars annually to Israel, including to support Jewish immigration to Israel and right-wing Israeli organizations and settlements in service of their goals of “regathering” the Jews, Palestinian displacement, and greater Israeli control.
While CUFI does not constitute President Biden’s base of support, Christian Zionism is shifting the U.S. conversation on Palestine as the movement continues to grow. The Biden administration restored funding to the UNRWA, but will not reverse many of Trump’s other Christian-Zionist influenced policies, including the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem, despite having been major departures from decades of U.S. foreign policy. CUFI has grown to 10 million members from just 2 million in 2015, and Christian Evangelicalism is believed to be one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, forming an ever larger base of U.S. and global political and financial support for Israel’s right wing. Current Israeli aggression toward Palestinians is an outgrowth of long-held Israeli policies that privilege Jews, especially wealthy Ashkenazim, over Palestinians, but tens of millions of Christian Zionists constitute the global movement supporting, instigating and pushing the expansion of Israeli State control over the “holy land” at whatever cost.
Implications of Christian Zionism for U.S. Progressive Movements
While Christian Zionist movements largely outpace Jewish Zionist movements in their numbers as well as in their extremist, authoritarian views, the two movements continue to use one another for their own gain. As many Jewish Zionists hail Balfour, an avid antisemite, as a hero, they are very happy to overlook the antisemitism of Christian Zionists to bolster the shared vision of an apartheid Jewish supremacist state in historic Palestine. For example, even when U.S. politicians distanced themselves from John Hagee for his overtly antisemitic views, the Anti-Defamation League remained silent. The alignment of establishment Jewish organizations with right-wing antisemitic Christian organizations for the benefit of the Israeli right wing is dangerous for progressive movements in Palestine, the United States and around the world.
Indeed, Christian Zionism must be challenged as a powerful threat to a larger progressive agenda. Because Christian Zionism is predicated on Christian salvation coinciding with the end of the world and annihilation of non-Christians, Christian Zionism is at its core anti-Muslim and antisemitic. The anti-Muslim sentiments of many Christian Zionist leaders are often overt and indisputable: prominent figures such as John Hagee, Chuck Pierce and Pat Robertson have referred to Islam as satanic and the devil, and are key actors in the U.S. anti-Muslim industry. On the other hand, Christian Zionists use their unwavering support of the State of Israel rooted in philosemitism — the fetishization and objectification of Jews — to make it seem that they care for Jews while using Jews as pawns in their End Times drama and believing Jews are ultimately “damned to hell.” More broadly, many Christian Zionist communities adhere to a larger Christian Right agenda fighting against abortion and LGBTQ rights, contradicting any claims that they care for peace and freedom.
To overlook the impact of Christian Zionism on the ongoing colonization of Palestine is to overlook the original and largest worldwide movement seeking full Jewish control in Palestine — and one of the largest and most consequential anti-Muslim, antisemitic and antidemocratic movements of our time. Christian Zionism has informed Western policy on Palestine since at least the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and continues to be the backbone of global support for ongoing occupation, apartheid and displacement. Progressives committed to Palestinian rights and liberation — as well as Muslim and Jewish safety — will be limited as long as they fail to directly challenge this behemoth of a movement.